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Paging John Hammond: Scientists discover well-preserved dino DNA in 75 million-year-old fossil

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Mar 4, 2020, 9:46 AM EST (Updated)

Heat up those cloning machines! Jurassic Park is one step closer to becoming a reality because scientists recently discovered a sample of extremely well-preserved dinosaur genetic material in a 75 million-year-old fossil. Even the official academic paper from the National Science Review describes the specimen as "exceptionally preserved dinosaur cartilage."

The DNA comes from a duck-billed dino from the Cretaceous Era known as Hypacrosaurus stebingeri. It was a member of the Hadrosauroidea family, which included the more famous and namesake hadrosaurs. Getting back to the matter at hand, the paper asserts that the Hypacrosaurus discovery was fossilized in such a way that "revealed microstructures morphologically consistent with nuclei and chromosomes in cells within calcified cartilage."

Moreover, the abstract discloses that the cells share certain qualities with the genetic material of modern day birds. It is a pretty widespread belief in the worlds of archaeology and paleontology that dinosaurs—despite looking a heck of a lot like lizards—shared much more in common with today's avian creatures than they did with what we think of as reptiles.

"The most exciting part of this paper is the discovery of fossilized nuclei and chromosomes in cartilage cells," Dr. Alida M. Bailleul, a co-author of the paper, tells SYFY WIRE. "We think that some of these cells are at the end of cell division, and others are in the process are dying. This exquisite level of cellular preservation has never been reported before in any vertebrate fossil. We also found evidence of fossilized cartilaginous molecules around the cells, in the matrix, in another specimen coming from the same nesting site as where we found the nuclei and chromosomes."

Ground section of Hypacrosaurus (MOR 548) supraoccipital shows exceptional histological preservation of calcified cartilage. (A) An isolated supraoccipital (So) of Hypacrosaurus in dorsal view. (B–D) Ground section of another So showing calcified cartilage with hypertrophic chondrocyte lacunae. (C) Some cell doublets appear empty (green arrow), but others (pink arrow) present darker, condensed material consistent in shape and location with a nucleus (white arrows). (D) Dark, condensed, and elongated material with morphological characteristics of metaphase chromosomes. The limit of the cell...

Obviously, we won't be cloning dinosaurs anytime soon, but the find is still a major breakthrough in a field that has long been resigned to the idea that DNA simply cannot survive the passage of millions of years. This development turns such a notion on its head.

"We also found some chemical evidence of remnants of DNA inside the cells, perhaps a highly altered fossilized DNA," adds Bailleul. "We do not think this chemical compound that reacts like DNA is a contaminant, and it looks definitely like it is dinosaurian in origin, and we propose to the scientific community to rethink about the longevity of the DNA molecule in deep-time, and to further investigate the ways that it could fossilize, with all of its chemical and molecular alteration. The focus on this paper is not about dinosaur DNA, it is about the exquisite preservation of cells, and biomolecules in deep-time. Our data on DNA is preliminary and still needs a lot of work! We have a lot of work ahead of us to fully understand everything."

Wenxia Zheng, John R Horner, Brian K Hall, Casey M Holliday, and Mary H Schweitzer are also credited as authors of the National Science report. In particular, Horner is the famous paleontologist who has consulted on every Jurassic Park and Jurassic World film to date.

A paleontologist focused on the evolutionary histology of birds and dinosaurs, Dr. Bailleul is currently a postdoctoral research fellow partaking in the President's International Fellowship Initiative at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. She is a member of the Avian Evolution Team, as well as the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins; Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.