Paleontologists are lucky to find complete sets of fossilized bones. Sometimes, they get even luckier, finding preserved impressions of delicate features like feathers. Beyond those clues, though, most of the biology of extinct species—their DNA, internal organs, and unique chemistry—has been totally destroyed by the many millions of years that separate us. Except, what if it hasn’t? Some scientists now claim they can tease much more complex biological information out of apparently mundane fossils, including things that most paleontologists don’t expect to survive over millions of years, such as skin and eggshell.
Molecular paleobiologist Jasmina Wiemann has been on the forefront of this exciting research since 2018, co-authoring papers that reveal elements of fossils that cannot be immediately seen with our eyes but can be detected through a series of complex chemical and statistical analyses. Her recent paper, published this summer with Jason Crawford and Derek Briggs, builds upon other, similar research from the past two years. She and her co-authors claim they can determine the chemical signatures of skin, bone, teeth, and eggshell. Even better, they can train anyone else in the field within approximately 20 minutes to find these ancient traces using their techniques. It’s an opportunity they hope will be widely used within museum collections the world over.
Consider that most museums only display a small percentage of the fossils they have in their collection. Those fossils chosen for display are either partially complete skeletons or fossils that are readily recognizable to the general public. What remains in many collections’ storage rooms are shelves upon shelves of the rest: the less-flashy fossils that nonetheless offer insight into ancient life. What if they all could be tested for hidden biomarkers?
It takes a specific set of circumstances for something to survive thousands of years, much less millions. And if it does become fossilized, think about the incredible pressure and heat it undergoes over eons. While it’s remarkable that bones and other hard tissues survive, it is currently assumed that less hardy structures, such as cells, blood vessels, skin, and their molecular building blocks, will not, especially after hundreds of millions of years.
Biomolecules—the chemical building blocks for which these scientists search—are the molecules that make up all animal tissues: proteins, lipids, and sugars. The specific fossilization products of biomolecules indicate to which kind of animal a fossil tissue once belonged, if it was biomineralized, and exactly what type of tissue it represents.
“Until now, it was assumed that biological signals preserved in modern biomolecules were lost during fossilization,” explained Wiemann in a phone interview. “Our study represents the very first exploration of original biosignatures in complex, fossil organic matter. Contrary to previous targeted analyses, we wanted to objectively explore if there are any signals preserved and what they can actually tell us about