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Dinosaur Red Blood Cells, Collagen Found in Fossils?

Jun 09, 2015 02:15 PM EDT

Remnants of soft tissue, boasting similarities to red blood cells and collagen fibers, have been found in fragments of dinosaur fossils, possibly allowing scientists to better understand how these prehistoric creatures evolved to become warm-blooded.

"Our study is helping us to see that preserved soft tissue may be more widespread in dinosaur fossils than we originally thought," study author Dr. Susannah Maidment of the Imperial College London said in a statement. "

"Although remnants of soft tissues have previously been discovered in rare, exceptionally preserved fossils, what is particularly exciting about our study is that we have discovered structures reminiscent of blood cells and collagen fibers in scrappy, poorly preserved fossils. This suggests that this sort of soft tissue preservation might be widespread in fossils," she added.

Though that's not to say that a Jurassic Park - or Jurassic World, with genetically engineered super-dinosaurs - is a remote possibility in our future. These latest fossils, like others found before them, have degraded DNA that's impossible to extract. Proteins such as DNA decompose extremely fast, and so are almost never found preserved in bones older than a few thousands years, CNN reports.

Still, though bringing dinosaurs back to life may not be feasible, this latest discovery at least helps us shed light on their fossil preservation and biology, somewhat giving us a glimpse into their Jurassic world.

During the study, researchers analyzed eight fossil fragments, including a dinosaur claw, dating back 75 million years, which have been held for more than a century in collections at the Natural History Museum in London.

They used scanning electron microscopy to observe the structure, composition and location of the soft tissue inside the dinosaur fossil fragments. Then they sliced open the samples with a focused ion beam to observe the fossils' inner structure.

With this combination of various techniques, the Imperial College London team identified tiny structures with an inner denser core, which they determined could potentially be red blood cells. This discovery may be able to help scientists better understand when dinosaurs developed a warm-blooded, birdlike metabolism.

In one dinosaur fossil fragment, the team also found structures that looked fibrous and had a banded structure similar to that seen in modern day collagen fibers. The structure of collagen varies between different animal groups, providing a type of fingerprint to link related creatures. This way, researchers may soon be able to determine how various dinosaur groups were related to each other.

Although the researchers point out that further research is needed to confirm their findings, and rule out any other possible origins.

"We still need to do more research to confirm what it is that we are imaging in these dinosaur bone fragments," study author Dr. Sergio Bertazzo noted, "but the ancient tissue structures we have analyzed have some similarities to red blood cells and collagen fibers. If we can confirm that our initial observations are correct, then this could yield fresh insights into how these creatures once lived and evolved."

The findings are described in more detail in the journal Nature Communications.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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