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American Association for the Advancement of Science

New form of information from T. rex and Mastodon fossils

After discovering a giant T. rex leg bone fossil in Montana, back in 2003, a team of scientists had a problem: it wouldn't fit in their helicopter. When they broke the fossil open in order to fit the pieces inside, this led to a shocking discovery. Some of the dinosaur's soft tissues such as blood vessels were still present inside the fossil.

When bones and shells are fossilized, minerals from the environment gradually replace the organic materials, eventually forming what's essentially a bone- or shell-shaped rock. The original tissues are almost never preserved, so the T. rex discovery was extremely unusual.

In a new study, the researchers have analyzed those tissues some more and found evidence of some of the dinosaur's collagen protein, which is the main organic component of bone. Somehow, these proteins escaped the fossilization process and have been preserved for millions of years.

In a second study, the scientists also analyzed some fossils from a giant, ancient relative to today's elephants, the mastodon. They were able to find some collagen proteins in these fossilized bones and those from T. rex using a technique called mass spectrometry.

The researchers even identified some of the proteins' basic building blocks, known as amino acids. An organism's genes contain the instructions for which amino acids should go into a protein, so the researchers' discovery may help them learn about T. rex and mastodon genes.

This research appears in the 13 April issue of the journal Science.

If scientists can use this technique to find other proteins inside fossils, they may have a whole new way of studying evolution and finding evolutionary links between extinct and living species.