Potential Remnants of Original Dinosaur DNA Discovered in Exquisitely Preserved Dinosaur Cells

Jehol Biota and Caudipteryx

Reconstruction of the Jehol Biota and the well-preserved specimen of Caudipteryx. Credit: Image by ZHENG Qiuyang

Organic molecule remnants found in nuclei of 125-million-year-old dinosaur cells.

A team of scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature (STM) has isolated exquisitely preserved cartilage cells in a 125-million-year-old dinosaur from Northeast China that contain nuclei with remnants of organic molecules and chromatin. The study was published in Communications Biology on September 24, 2021.

The dinosaur, called Caudipteryx, was a small peacock-sized omnivore with long tail feathers. It roamed the shores of the shallow lakes of the Jehol Biota in Liaoning province during the Early Cretaceous.

“Geological data has accumulated over the years and shown that fossil preservation in the Jehol Biota was exceptional due to fine volcanic ashes that entombed the carcasses and preserved them down to the cellular level,” said LI Zhiheng, Associate Professor at IVPP and a co-author of this study.

The scientists extracted a piece of distal articular cartilage from the right femur of this specimen, decalcified it, and used different microscopy and chemical methods to analyze it. They realized that all the cells had been mineralized by silicification after the death of the animal. This silicification is most likely what allowed the excellent preservation of these cells.

They also discovered two main types of cells: cells that were healthy at the time of fossilization, and not-so-healthy cells that were porous and fossilized while in the process of dying. “It is possible that these cells were already dying even before the animal died,” said Alida Bailleul, Associate Professor at IVPP and the corresponding author of this study.

Cell death is a process that occurs naturally throughout the lives of all animals. But being able to place a fossilized cell into a specific spot within the cell cycle is quite new in paleontology. This is one of the objectives of the IVPP scientists: to improve cellular imagery in fossils.

Furthermore, the team isolated some cells and stained them with a chemical used in biological laboratories worldwide. This purple chemical, called hematoxylin, is known to bind to the nuclei of cells. After staining the dinosaur material, one dinosaur cell showed a purple nucleus with some darker purple threads. This means the 125-million-year-old dinosaur cell has a nucleus so well-preserved that it retains some original biomolecules and threads of chromatin.

Chromatin within the cells of all living organisms on Earth is made of tightly packed DNA molecules. The results of this study thus provide preliminary data suggesting that remnants of original dinosaur DNA may still be preserved. But to precisely test this, the team needs to do a lot more work and use chemical methods that are much more refined than the staining they used here.

“Let’s be honest, we are obviously interested in fossilized cell nuclei because this is where most of the DNA should be if DNA was preserved,” said Alida Bailleul. Last year she published another study reporting exceptional nuclear and biomolecule preservation in the cartilage cells of a dinosaur from Montana.” So, we have good preliminary data, very exciting data, but we are just starting to understand cellular biochemistry in very old fossils. At this point, we need to work more.”

The team insists they need to do many more analyses and even develop new methods to understand the processes that may allow biomolecule preservation in dinosaur cells, because no one has ever successfully sequenced any dinosaur DNA. In the ancient DNA community, sequencing methods are used to confirm if ancient DNA is preserved in fossils. So far, these methods have only worked for young fossils (not much older than about one million years), but they have never worked for dinosaur material. Dinosaurs are considered way too old to retain any DNA. However, the chemical data collected by the scientists from IVPP and STM suggest otherwise.

Even though more data must be collected, this study definitely shows that 125-million-year old fossil dinosaur cells cannot be considered 100% rock. They are not completely “stonified.” Instead, they still contain remnants of organic molecules. Now, it is vital to figure out precisely what these molecules are, whether they retain any biological information and remnants of DNA.

Reference: “Nuclear preservation in the cartilage of the Jehol dinosaur Caudipteryx” by Xiaoting Zheng, Alida M. Bailleul, Zhiheng Li, Xiaoli Wang and Zhonghe Zhou, 24 September 2021, Communications Biology.
DOI: 10.1038/s42003-021-02627-8

12 Comments on "Potential Remnants of Original Dinosaur DNA Discovered in Exquisitely Preserved Dinosaur Cells"

  1. O, really, “exquisitely preserved cartilage cells in a 125-million-year-old dinosaur.” Impossible. The only explanation is that this dinosaur died a few thousand years ago. 125 million years is a long, long, long time, folks. Let real biological science overrule these felonious time estimates

  2. Caudilpteryx is a bird not a dinosaur. It’s a oviraptor .oviraptor have the same joint found in today bird that make there skull very kinetic .dinosaur skull there is no evidence of a kinetic skull in any dinosaur. lizard skull lack the joint too lizard and dinosaur skull is more kinetic than the gator because gator have 6 bones fuse to braincase and palate fuse to braincase too.because of stronger bite force. oviraptor hip is like modern bird very advance .gator and dinosaur hip are same . DNA can not survive million years it’s proven by creationist .that fossil red blood cell have proven wrong by creationist think it is from t.rex or soft tissue it’s iron that look like blood that is from that mary scientist her work have proven wrong all the time from wired magazine .she need to clean her hand that why it came up false and use more animal .I think story was on t.rex femur .I am not expert on age of dinosaur bones but what I am hearing from creationist those bones are million years old.so Jurassic park is a dream to bring dinosaur back but they allready is here as modern crocodilian the last living spinosauridae dinosaur.most dinosaur died in a death roll .

  3. Sunwyn Ravenwood | September 26, 2021 at 2:50 pm | Reply

    Great. Two comments from people who know absolutely nothing at all about evolution or paleontology.

  4. But can they weaponise it?

  5. Nearly had a stroke reading the second comment. Incoherent and distorted reasoning.

  6. Nothing to get excited about. This is definitely a case of DNA contamination. The fact that these scientists have not even discounted this explanation indicates that the genetic material discovered is just a few weeks old…

  7. The sad truth is we cannot trust any information coming out of China. The ccp has such a stranglehold on society and they fabricate so many lies all the time it’s impossible to discern fact from fiction. I feel bad for the Chinese people who couldn’t escape to Taiwan and avoid the totalitarian tragedy that is modern China.

  8. They just started on the mammoth, jurassic park should have been a warning but hey more big game to hunt if we don’t have to worry about extinction anymore

  9. What could possibly go wrong?

  10. What a load of hogwash! Where did they come up with these millions of years nonsense is beyond beyond me? we know and have found dinosaur remains and human remains in the same geologic strata in Utah and in Texas and other parts of the world this whole nonsense of millions of years ago is about as ridiculous as calling fossil fuel”fossil fuel”

  11. Everytime I read stuff like this the jurassic park theme plays in my head

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