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NC State scientist finds soft tissue in T. rex bones

Conventional wisdom among paleontologists states that when dinosaurs died and became fossilized, soft tissues didn't preserve the bones were essentially transformed into "rocks" through a gradual replacement of all organic material by minerals. New research by a North Carolina State University paleontologist, however, could literally turn that theory inside out.

Dr. Mary Schweitzer, assistant professor of paleontology with a joint appointment at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, has succeeded in isolating soft tissue from the femur of a 68-million-year-old dinosaur. Not only is the tissue largely intact, it's still transparent and pliable, and microscopic interior structures resembling blood vessels and even cells are still present.

In a paper published in the March 25 edition of the journal Science, Schweitzer describes the process by which she and her technician, Jennifer Wittmeyer, isolated soft organic tissue from the leg bone of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex.

Schweitzer was interested in studying the microstructure and organic components of a dinosaur's bone. All bone is made up of a combination of protein (and other organic molecules) and minerals. In modern bone, removing the minerals leaves supple, soft organic materials that are much easier to work with in a lab. In contrast, fossilized bone is believed to be completely mineralized, meaning no organics are present. Attempting to dissolve the minerals from a piece of fossilized bone, so the theory goes, would merely dissolve the entire fossil.

But the team was surprised by what actually happened when they removed the minerals from the T. rex femur fragment. The removal process left behind stretchy bone matrix material that, when examined microscopically, seemed to show blood vessels, osteocytes, or bone building cells, and other recognizable organic features.

Since current data indicates that living birds are more closely related to dinosaurs
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Contact: Tracey Peake
tracey_peake@ncsu.edu
9190515-3470
North Carolina State University
24-Mar-2005


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