An international team of researchers has uncovered what appears to be fragments of 75 million-year-old DNA from a dinosaur hatchling, bringing the concept behind Jurassic Park one step closer to reality. Previously, it was broadly accepted that the maximum amount of time that DNA could survive in a fossil was about a million years, but this discovery of fragments of genetic code from the ancient past may upend that assumption.

The fossil that the DNA was found in is that of a freshly-hatched duckbill dinosaur called Hypacrosaurus stebingeri, first discovered in northern Montana in 1988. Along with its sister species (H. altispinus), H. stebingeri is part of the Hypacrosaurus genus that lived in what is now Alberta and Montana, from 75 million to 67 million years ago. Equipped with a hollow crest on its forehead, Hypacrosaurus appears to have walked for part of the time on its hind legs, and was very large; indeed, “Hypacrosaurus” is Greek for “near the highest lizard”, in reference to its height falling just short of the massive Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“The skull bones of baby dinosaurs are not fused when they hatch, but instead, some of them have cartilaginous plates that fuse later as bone forms in the spaces between them,” explains Dr. Alida Bailleul, a paleontologist in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and the Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, Chinese Academy of Sciences. As the dinosaur grows, the plates ossify, or harden, in the same manner as that of modern birds, but this intermediate state allowed the researchers a unique opportunity to study the creatures’ cartilage.

When examining the skull of a juvenile Hypacrosaur, the research team discovered that the calcified cartilage that formed between the hatchling’s skull plates had preserved the structure of individual cells incredibly well, including two cells that visibly had just finished the process of cellular division. Some cells even included what appeared to be nuclei (the cellular structure containing most of the cell’s genetic material), and when magnified further, those nuclei contained elongated structures that appeared to be chromosomes—the structure that contains the individual organism’s genetic code.

“I couldn’t believe it—my heart almost stopped beating,” Dr. Bailleul exclaimed.

This shocking discovery prompted the team to run two types of chemical analysis—immunological and histochemical—on another hatchling found in the same group of fossils, to see if the structures they were seeing held any trace of biological material. The immunological tests, where specific antibodies are applied to the sample to see if they react to specific biological proteins, indicated that there was indeed cartilage protein present in the sample. The histochemical test applies a chemical specifically tailored to only stain specific DNA fragments; these tests provided a positive result, suggesting that ancient DNA fragments had survived their 75 million-year journey through time.

“Although bone cells have previously been isolated from dinosaur bone, this is the first time that cartilage-producing cells have been isolated from a fossil,” according to Dr. Bailleul.

“It’s an exciting find that adds to the growing body of evidence that these tissues, cells and nuclear material can persist for millions—even tens of millions—of years.”

6 Comments

  1. The assumptions that geological records are correct in everyway also need to be looked at. That been said didn’t Jurassic Park at least hint this was a bad idea

    1. Between relative stratigraphy and radiometric dating techniques, I’d say it’s a safe bet that the fossils being worked on here are at least 67 million years old, and quite probably the 75 million that the Hypacrosaurs were supposed to be.

      The various reasons put forward by Grant, Malcolm and Satler in Jurassic Park were about why it would be a bad idea to build a haphazard amusement park out of this idea, not whether or not researchers should try to uncover more information about extinct species through whatever means they have.

      The genetic fragments referred to in this article are just that: fragments. Nothing can be cloned from them, but with a little luck the DNA itself might fill in a few gaps in our knowledge of the ancient beasts.

      Even Jurassic Park itself lampshaded the notion that their dinosaurs weren’t actual dinosaur clones–since that was impossible to do–but rather they were cobbled together from dinosaur DNA fragments that were combined with modern amphibian genes to create dinosaur-like creatures. This was a key plot point that allowed the ‘saurs to inherit the frog’s gender-bending traits to make them a self-replicating menace.

      1. I cant really say that stratigraphy and radiometric dating do it for me. Transgender dinosaurs reproducing is very confronting.

        Just a few problems with the geologic column. An artistic perfect rendition of geologic column is in text books everywhere. But in reality not one exists anywhere in the world. Only in 3 locations but the strata layers are incomplete. In many places strata layers are missing. Limestone is spread out unevenly or missing. In hundreds of places the strata layers are inverted, uplifted or overturned ?! Petrified trees found poking through many different strata layers {In some cases millions of years of supposed strata} have been found everywhere around the globe. This is the tip of the ice berg.

        Radiometric dating is based on a few assumptions. The first classic assumption is that we know the amount of original parent material before the daughter elements were formed. And thats impossible ! Then there’s leaching from other rocks.

        Mt St Helens exploded in 1980. Its lava flows were radiometric dated from 300k to 3mill years ago. It formed a canyon system 1/40 the size of the Grand Canyon, in under a month. {And this includes strata layers in places, fresh upright tress were found in between the layers}

        I could go on and on. My mind changed on the accuracy of geologic dating when a friend of mine asked to see a debate from the creationist geologist and the secular geologists at the university he was going too. I went thinking finally the creationist’s get to bury themselves. I listened to both arguments and i must admit the creationist had a very valid point on many issues mainly dating. I left thinking its just a belief system everyones is clinging to.

        I didn’t leave thinking the earth was made in 7 days. It seems to me catastrophic changes happens regularly. {In geologic terms} And when they do over turning parts of the earth in places.

        1. Yes, those are valid issues with geological dating methods, but needless to say, you’re not the first to think of them, and they’re factors that are taken into account when a given geological sample is being evaluated. Each test is also not performed in a vacuum, with multiple dating techniques being applied to a given sample to help rule out problems or inaccuracies that might arise with other tests.

          I won’t bother getting into specifics regarding the examples you’ve presented here, but rather leave it up to you to research what each method entails, and how they’re not nearly as simplistic as you’ve presented them to be (U–Pb dating, for instance).

          No, geological dating methods aren’t precise—nobody claimed that they were—but they are accurate enough to get a time period useful enough for researchers to make temporal sense of whatever subject they’re studying. U-Pb dating, for instance, is capable of narrowing down the age of a rock formed around the birth of the solar system to within the range of a million years.

          I would also advise against forming a belief based on a single argument won by someone who’s viewpoint has no factual basis: I watched an interview on climate change where the climate denier left the global warming advocate befuddled with a series of otherwise easily-answered questions. Instead of assuming that the denier had a number of valid points, I re-checked the facts, and found that his opponent was simply woefully unprepared, as I suspect your secular geologists were.

  2. Hi Mathew,

    We are human and we do form beliefs/ ideas around what we are exposed to. Just look at religions of the world. This of course includes Sciences yes thats right sometimes they become ivory towers in certain corners “All Must Believe”.

    U-Pb dating has it limitations.
    The main technique they use is called isochron. They “believe” it is sensitive to contamination. So any data that falls on the outer of the test is considered as contamination. {Paradigm} So the contamination never gets proved to be contamination. { Paradox}

    Other anomalies and assumptions lay with Lead Pb and Zircon Pb. Pb is found elsewhere in other rocks very slightly. We assume the rate of decay uranium had in the past is the same as what it is now.

    What we really need is a time machine.

    1. Yeah… I already said that these techniques aren’t precise, but you’re explaining the basic concept of data outliers because… why? Scientists, and by extension the rest of us, should reject their findings because the data’s not exactingly precise, and requires interpretation?

      Anyhow, yes, you’re right, reality is up for grabs, and the demonstrated constants and mathematical concepts involved here could very well be entirely bunk, yadda-yadda-yadda. Not to sound impatient, but what is your point?

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