Feature Article - May 1999
by Do-While Jones

Dinosaur Blood and DNA

We got this rather surprising e-mail message recently:

Subj: Living red blood cells in dinosaur fossils

Ok, maybe you can help me out. I've heard information lately on living red blood cells that have been found inside of dinosaur fossils. This has been used as an argument against evolution. However, is it not possible that, since these fossils were found in the cold, that the cold could have preserved the blood cells, rendering them "still living" after millions of years?

As it turned out, she was confused. Living red blood cells have not been found in dinosaur fossils. But we came across some information while researching the issue which we hope you will find interesting. But first, let’s digress a little bit.

Is Blood Alive?

The first thing that puzzled us about the e-mail message were the phrases, “living red blood cells” and “still living”. We wondered how to tell if red blood cells are alive or not. This is not a silly question. There certainly is a difference between “fresh” blood and “stale” blood. The Red Cross refrigerates blood in an attempt to keep it fresh, or viable, or whatever you want to call it. Eventually the blood “goes bad” no matter what they do. Would you want a transfusion with blood that had been kept on the shelf, un-refrigerated for three years? Probably not. Something about blood changes over time; but does it really die? Is blood alive to begin with?

The problem is, we are not aware of any good, technically-accurate definition of what life is. If you say that life is a self-sustaining chemical process, then fire is alive. If you say something is alive if it grows, then salt crystals are alive. This was mentioned in the March 1998 issue of National Geographic.

Before [biochemist Gerald] Joyce shows off his experiments, I ask him a question that has been bothering me: "What does it mean to be alive?" Dressed in khaki pants and looking no older than his students, Joyce gets antsy as he tries to respond. "You can't put forward a firm scientific definition of life. It's a term that really only has popular meaning." Although scientists have offered many definitions of life, all fall short at some level. Some are so broad they encompass nonliving entities, such as fire or mineral crystals. Others are so narrow they disqualify mules, which are sterile. Joyce favors the definition of life as "a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution." 1

If you don’t believe in Darwinian evolution, then nothing is alive according to that definition. If you do believe that the various blood types all evolved from a more primitive blood type, then blood may be alive, depending upon your definition of “self-sustaining.”

A few days after you get sunburned, you might peel off some “dead” skin. Clearly there is a difference between dead skin and live skin, but what is it? Live skin grows but dead skin doesn’t. Is growth by reproduction the difference between life and death?

Reproduction usually figures into a definition of life somehow. When skin grows it must be reproducing itself. But blood doesn’t reproduce itself. Blood is manufactured by bone marrow. That makes it more like milk, which is manufactured by mammary glands. We don’t think anybody considers milk to be alive.

The great scientist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, (1824 - 1907) once said,

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge of it is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science.

In this case, we can’t measure what we are speaking about. We can tell how many ampere-hours of “life” is left in an automobile battery; but we can’t tell how much life is left in a chipmunk. We can’t measure life, because our knowledge of life is “of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.”

Science can explain natural phenomenon. Maybe the reason why we can’t measure life is because it isn’t a natural phenomenon. Maybe life is something, metaphysical or supernatural. If that is true, then naturalistic explanations will never be adequate or correct.

Bloody Bones

Enough of that philosophical digression. Let’s get back to the matter at hand. Has blood, dead or alive, ever been found in dinosaur bones?

It turned out that our e-mail correspondent had read, and misunderstood, an article by Carl Wieland in Creation Ex Nihilo 19(4):42-43, Sept.-Nov. 1997. Dr. Wieland was reviewing an article from the June 1997 issue of Earth magazine that described a Montana State University analysis of an incompletely fossilized T. rex skeleton discovered in 1990. “Dinosaur” Jack Horner and Mary Schweitzer observed “tiny round objects, translucent red with a dark center” which appeared to be red blood cells. Apparently they have not been able to determine whether these tiny red things really are dried blood cells or not. Certainly they are not “living” blood cells.

Regardless of whether or not there are still traces of blood in these T. rex bones or not, it is certainly remarkable that the bones are not completely fossilized. It is surprising that any kind of organic material remains in dinosaur bones because all of it should have decayed and been replaced by minerals in 65 million years.

(After this article was written, we went to Montana to check out this report first-hand. Click here to read what we discovered.)

We wondered if there were any other documented cases of discovery of organic material in dinosaur bones. Our literature search turned up seven references to ancient DNA in Nature. These references ranged from April, 1990, to February, 1994. Unfortunately, our collection of Nature back issues doesn’t go back to 1994. Since we are subscribers to Nature, we can search and retrieve old Nature articles from the Internet. Unfortunately, the on-line articles don’t go back that far, either. We also found four references in Science, from September, 1991, to November, 1994. Unfortunately, the on-line Science articles only go back to October, 1995.

Next, we searched the archives of the Geology Society of America and finally hit pay dirt. We found “Preservation of the Bone Protein Osteocalcin in Dinosaurs” by Gerard Muyzer, et al., in Geology, Vol. 20, October 1992, pages 871-874. This article was available on a CD ROM containing all the 1992 Geology journal articles. So, we bought it just for that one article.

The article tells how Muyzer, et al., used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify a protein that they suspected to be osteocalcin from two Cretaceous dinosaurs identified as “Lambeosaurus F38” (which they believe to be 75.5 million years old), “Pachyrhinosaurus F39” (supposedly 73.25 millions years old), and a third dinosaur sample identified only as “F33”. They used two different methods to determine if this protein really was osteocalcin or not.

The first method used an immunological reaction. Here’s how it works: When a few molecules of a foreign substance are injected into an animal, that animal’s immune system will naturally produce antibodies to fight it. The kind of antibodies it produces depends on the kind of foreign material introduced. Furthermore, the animal’s immune system will produce lots of antibody cells in response to just a few foreign molecules, so the antibodies are much easier to detect than the foreign material itself.

The researchers took some osteocalcin from alligator bones and injected it into a rabbit to see what kind of antibodies the rabbit produced to fight off the osteocalcin. Then they took some powdered dinosaur bones and injected it into the rabbit, and it produced the same kind of antibodies, indirectly indicating that there was osteocalcin in the powdered dinosaur bones.

The second method used a direct measurement of Gla/Glu ratios “detected by high-performance chromatography.” We won’t even begin to try to explain that.

Their conclusion was that both methods showed osteocalcin was still present in the three different dinosaur bones they analyzed. This was published in October, 1992. Remember that our literature search found that all the articles on organic material still present in dinosaur bones were published from April 1990 until November 1994. As far as we can tell, there has been nothing published in Nature or Science on the subject since then. Why not?

We suspect it has something to do with the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial and the 1993 release of Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park made the general public aware that DNA supposedly from Jurassic times had been preserved in amber. Experts testified at the O.J. trial that DNA decomposes so rapidly that DNA from the blood found at the murder scene could not be positively identified. This gave credibility to the creationists’ claim that dinosaurs must have lived recently because DNA can’t last millions of years.

Second, Jurassic Park made any scientist doing research on ancient DNA appear to be a dangerous lunatic who might release dinosaurs upon the modern Earth. Scientists who value their reputations generally don’t want to be viewed as creationists or lunatics. Only the brave scientists continued the research on “ancient” organic molecules.

One such brave scientist is Matthew Collins. He is one of the “et al.” authors of the 1992 osteocalcin article we told you about. He works for the Fossil Fuels and Environmental Geochemistry (Postgraduate Institute) Newcastle Research Group. He is still getting funding from the European Union to continue the research. On his home page he defends his research this way:

Dinosaurs hold an enduring fascination. We reported the detection of a protein in a dinosaur bone, published at around the same time as the release of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster, Jurassic Park, [so it] was bound to receive the full media treatment. Our report claimed to have detected osteocalcin immunologically and also to have found an unusual amino acid g-carboxyglutamic acid (Gla) in a dinosaur bone from immature (unheated) sediments. Osteocalcin is peculiarly suited to such spectacular survival, it is very abundant in bone, binds strongly to it and has the distinction of being the only ancient protein ever to have been sequenced (from 6,000 year old Moa bones).

Some articles suggested that the finding had brought forward the chances of successfully turning the science fiction of Jurassic Park into scientific fact. Elsevier magazine (2.10.93) stated "[The detection of osteocalcin] has set other scientists thinking, if it is possible for a protein, perhaps it is also possible for DNA". The Daily Telegraph even suggested that trend-setting restaurateurs may start serving dinosaur soup! The scientific community was more skeptical, Jeff Bada (an experienced protein geochemist) warned in an interview in Science News "I worry greatly about the stability of Gla, why would it remain unaltered for tens of millions of years?". 2

Forever Fresh

Apparently, some process has preserved proteins for a remarkably long period of time--tens of millions of years. Scientists like Jeff Bada don’t know what that process could possibly be. Therefore, it is valuable to do research to find out what that process is. If we can figure out what that process is, then maybe we can figure out how to use that process to preserve food or some other useful, perishable product. Maybe we can even use that process to preserve living cells. Then we could live forever. Finding the secret to eternal, youthful life is one that many people would dearly love to discover. It is no wonder that Matthew Collins can still get funding to discover how osteocalcin can have “such spectacular survival.”

Scientists are asking, “How can this protein be so fresh when it is contained in such old bones?” We should consider the possibility that they will never find the answer because they might be asking the wrong question. Maybe they should ask, “How can these bones be so old when they contain such fresh protein?” That throws a whole new light on the subject. They won’t ever figure out how protein can last for tens of millions of years without breaking down if protein can’t really last for tens of millions of years. They will be wasting their time.

The second question (“How can these bones be so old when they contain such fresh protein?”) is as important to address as the first. If it is true that the world is not millions of years old, and that dinosaurs did not live millions of years ago, then it suggests an entirely different approach to finding eternal life. That’s why it is so important for scientific investigation to discover the true age of proteins and the bones that contain them.

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Footnotes:

1 Richard Monastersky, National Geographic “The Rise of Life on Earth” March 1998 page 69 (Ev)
2 http://nrg.ncl.ac.uk/nrg-news/nrg-news98/dino.html (Ev-)