Seeing fossils in a new light

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Science  11 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6462, pp. 176-178
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6462.176

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In the bowels of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History lies a wickedly sharp, sickle-shaped dinosaur claw, black as coal. It is part of the type specimen of Deinonychus—the basis for the Velociraptor in the Jurassic Park movies. The black color signals something just as striking. The fossil isn't just a mineral replica of the original claw. It is likely two-thirds dinosaur residue. That fossils can harbor organic matter isn't new. Whole fields of science have sprung up to decipher ancient DNA and intact proteins. But in fossils as old as the Deinonychus claw, most of the useful sequences of those molecules have long vanished. Now, researchers at Yale have devised a way to extract information locked in degraded proteins. They have shown how, when conditions are right after an animal dies, cellular proteins can transform into a mix of hardy polymers that repel water, are inedible for microbes, are impervious to heat, and last for eons. They are now starting to apply their nondestructive technique to help solve paleontological mysteries such as where turtles fit on the vertebrate family tree, and whether an extinct animal was warm-blooded.

  • * With reporting by Elizabeth Culotta in New Haven, Connecticut.

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