Paleontologists have recovered what appear to be soft tissues from the thighbone of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex, potentially enabling dinosaur research to make a leap into the study of the animals’ actual physiology and perhaps even their cell biology, they said Thursday.
Working with the remains of a T. rex unearthed in northeast Montana’s celebrated Hell Creek formation, the research team systematically removed minerals and fossilized deposits from the thighbone, exposing blood vessels, bone cells and possibly intact blood cells with nuclei.
“The tissues are still soft, transparent and flexible, and we can manipulate the vessels with our probe,” said team leader Mary Schweitzer, of North Carolina State University. “The bone matrix is flexible. We can hydrate and rehydrate it, and the microstructures are preserved in every way.”
Schweitzer said the team was conducting further chemical tests to determine if individual proteins could be isolated from the specimen. She said she did not know if it was possible to recover DNA, but outside scientists said it was unlikely that such an ancient sample would yield anything beyond fragments.
“There’s no ‘Jurassic Park’ scenario,” said paleontologist Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director of research and collections at the National Museum of Natural History, but he and others said the ability to isolate soft tissues nevertheless could open up research horizons never before imagined.
“Ultimately if we could establish chemical composition, we would have insights into all kinds of things – diet, sexual maturity, whether the specimen is the male or female,” Sues said. “There’s a lot of biological information locked up in this material.”
Research team member John Horner, of Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies, said the skeleton, of a smallish T. rex about 18 years old and perhaps 40 feet tall, was found beneath 1,000 cubic yards of sandstone at the base of the Hell Creek formation along the Missouri River in northeast Montana.