Sad news for those of us hoping to one-day roam around a real Jurassic Park: scientists at the University of Manchester have demonstrated that collagen discovered approximately a decade ago in Tyrannosaurus rex fossils was a modern contaminant, not a prehistoric protein.
Writing in the May 31 edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Dr. Michael Buckley from the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and his colleagues explained that they re-analyzed protein sequences (peptides) discovered ten years ago in a 68-million-year-old T. rex fossil and found that they belonged to more modern creatures.
Initially, the purported discovery of dinosaur collagen “sent a shockwave around the world, both among scientists and the public. It appeared that fiction was now being converted to fact through the application of new techniques,” Dr. Buckley said in a statement. Furthermore, those findings appeared to be corroborated by the same team in fossils belonging to a Brachylophosaurus.
However, as the Manchester researchers pointed out, the research was not universally accepted, as some experts believed that the specimens could have been contaminated while being analyzed in the laboratory. So Dr. Buckley’s team launched an investigation to determine if the supposed dinosaur peptides may have actually belonged to more modern animals.
Collagen survival still not proven beyond 3.5 million years
Specifically, they knew that the laboratories where the original collagen discoveries were made also used ostriches and alligators in their research, so they analyzed bone samples from a trio of different ostriches and found that they strongly matched peptides detected in both the T. rex and the Brachylophosaurus specimens.
“Our work set out to identify the collagen fingerprints for both ostrich and alligator and was not intending to debunk the previous studies,” Dr. Buckley explained. “However, we soon realized that our results were pulling the rug from beneath the paradigm that collagen might survive the ravages of deep time.”
The findings establish that cross-contamination could not be eliminated as a possible source for the protein peptides, and emphasize the need for enhanced authentication criteria when trying to identify biomolecular sequence information from fossilized material, the researchers noted. Thus far, they said, the survival of collagen beyond 3.5 million years has yet to be verified.
“We must never forget that when results show us something that we really want to see, that we make sure of our interpretation,” said co-author Phil Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester. “The alleged discovery of protein sequences in dinosaur bones has led many unsuccessful attempts to repeat these remarkable claims. It seems we were trying to reproduce something that was beyond the current detection limits of our science.”