Ancient Mouse Fur Discovery with Mighty Implications

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By Fazale Rana – June 26, 2019

“What a mouse! . . . WHAT A MOUSE!”

The narrator’s exclamation became the signature cry each time the superhero Mighty Mouse carried out the most impossible of feats.

A parody of Superman, Mighty Mouse was the 1942 creation of Paul Terry of Terrytoons Studio for 20th Century Fox. Since then, Mighty Mouse has appeared in theatrical shorts and films, Saturday morning cartoons, and comic books.

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Figure 1: Mighty Mouse. Image credit: Wikipedia

Throughout each episode, the characters sing faux arias—mocking opera—with Mighty Mouse belting out, “Here I am to save the day!” each time he flies into action. As you would expect, many of the villains Mighty Mouse battles are cats, with his archnemesis being a feline named Oil Can Harry.

Mouse Fur Discovery

Recently, a team of researchers headed by scientists from the University of Manchester in the UK went to heroic measures to detect pigments in a 3-million-year-old mouse fossil, nicknamed—you guessed it—“mighty mouse.”1 To detect the pigments, the researchers developed a new method that employs Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-Ray Fluorescence Imaging to map metal distributions in the fossil, which, in turn, correlate with the types of pigments found in the animal’s fur when it was alive.

This work paves the way for paleontologists to develop a better understanding of past life on Earth, with fur pigmentation being unusually important. The color of an animal’s fur has physiological and behavioral importance and can change relatively quickly over the course of geological timescales through microevolutionary mechanisms.

This discovery also carries importance for the science-faith conversation. Some Christians believe that the recovery of soft tissue remnants, such as the pigments that make up fur, call into question the scientific methods used to determine the age of geological formations and the fossil record. This uncertainty opens up the possibility that our planet (and life on Earth) may be only 6,000 years old.

Is the young-earth interpretation of this advance valid? Is it possible for soft tissue materials to survive for millions of years? If so, how?

Detection of 3-Million-Year-Old Pigment

University of Manchester researchers applied their methodology to an exceptionally well-preserved 3-million-year-old fossil specimen (Apodemus atavus) recovered from the Willershausen conservation site in Germany. The specimen was compressed laterally during the fossilization process and is so well-preserved that imprints of its fur are readily visible.

The research team indirectly identified the pigments that at one time colored the fur by mapping the distribution of metals in the fossil specimen. These metals are known to associate with the pigments eumelanin and pheomelanin, the two main forms of melanin. (Eumelanin produces black and brown hues. Pheomelanin imparts fur, skin, and feathers with a light reddish-brown color.) As it turns out, copper ions chemically interact with eumelanin and pheomelanin. On the other hand, zinc (Zn) ions interact exclusively with pheomelanin by binding to sulfur (S) atoms that are part of this pigment’s molecular structure. Zinc doesn’t interact with eumelanin because sulfur is not part of its chemical composition.

The research team mapped the Zn and S distributions of the mighty mouse fossil and concluded that much of the fur was colored with pheomelanin and, therefore, must have been reddish brown. They failed to detect any pigment in the fur coating the animal’s underbelly and feet, leading them to speculate that the mouse had white fur coating its stomach and feet.

What a piece of science! . . . WHAT A PIECE OF SCIENCE!

Soft Tissues and the Scientific Case for a Young Earth

Paleontologists see far-reaching implications for this work. Roy Wogelius, one of the scientists leading the study, hopes that “these results will mean that we can become more confident in reconstructing extinct animals and thereby add another dimension to the study of evolution.”2

Young-earth creationists (YECs) also see far-reaching implications for this study. Many argue that advances such as this one provide compelling evidence that the earth is young and that the fossil record was laid down as a consequence of a recent global flood.

The crux of the YEC argument centers around the survivability of soft tissue materials. According to common wisdom, soft tissue materials should rapidly degrade once the organism dies. If this is the case, then there is no way soft tissue remnants should hang around for thousands of years, let alone millions. The fact that these materials can be recovered from fossil specimens indicates that the preserved organisms must be only a few thousand years old. And if that’s the case, then the methods used to date the fossils cannot be valid.

At first glance, the argument carries some weight. Most people find it hard to envision how soft tissue materials could survive for vast periods of time, given the wide range of mechanisms that drive the degradation of biological materials.

Preservation Mechanisms for Soft Tissues in Fossils

Despite this initial impression, over the last decade or so paleontologists have identified a number of mechanisms that can delay the degradation of soft tissues long enough for them to become entombed within a mineral shell. When this entombment occurs, the degradation process dramatically slows down. In other words, it is a race against time. Can mineral entombment take place before the soft tissue materials fully decompose? If so, then soft tissue remnants can survive for hundreds of millions of years. And any chemical or physical process that can delay the degradation will contribute to soft tissue survival by giving the entombment process time to take place.

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I describe several mechanisms that likely promote soft tissue survival. I also discuss the molecular features that contribute to soft tissue preservation in fossils. Not all molecules are made equally. Some are fragile and some robust. Two molecular properties that make molecules unusually durable are cross-linking and aromaticity. As it turns out, eumelanin and pheomelanin possess both.

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Figure 2: Chemical Structure of Eumelanin. Image credit: Wikipedia

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Figure 3: Chemical Structure of Pheomelanin. Image credit: Wikipedia

When considering the chemical structures of eumelanin and pheomelanin, it isn’t surprising that these materials persist in the fossil record for millions of years. In fact, researchers have isolated eumelanin from a fossilized cephalopod ink sac that dates to around 160 million years ago.3

It is also worth noting that the mouse specimen was well-preserved, making it even more likely that durable soft-tissue materials would persist in the fossil. And, keep in mind that the research team detected trace amounts of pigments using sophisticated, state-of-the-art chemical instrumentation.

In short, the recovery of trace levels of soft-tissue materials from fossil remains is not surprising. Soft-tissue materials associated with the mighty mouse specimen—and other fossils, for that matter— can’t save the day for the young-earth paradigm, but they find a ready explanation in an old-earth framework.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Phillip L. Manning et al., “Pheomelanin Pigment Remnants Mapped in Fossils of an Extinct Mammal,” Nature Communications 10, (May 21, 2019): 2250, doi:10.1038/s41467-019-10087-2.
  2. DOE/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, “In a First, Researchers Identify Reddish Coloring in an Ancient Fossil,” Science Daily, May 21, 2019, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190521075110.htm
  3. Keely Glass et al., “Direct Chemical Evidence for Eumelanin Pigment from the Jurassic Period,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109, no. 26 (June 26, 2012): 10218–23, doi:10.1073/pnas.1118448109.

Soft Tissue Preservation Mechanism Stabilizes the Case for Earth’s Antiquity

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BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 19, 2018

One of the highlights of the year at Reasons to Believe (well, it’s a highlight for some of us, anyway) is the white elephant gift exchange at our staff Christmas party. It is great fun to laugh together as a staff as we take turns unwrapping gifts—some cheesy, some useless, and others highly prized—and then “stealing” from one another those two or three gifts that everyone seems to want.

Over the years, I have learned a few lessons about choosing a white elephant gift to unwrap. Avoid large gifts. If the gift is a dud, large items are more difficult to find a use for than small ones. Also, more often than not, the most beautifully wrapped gifts turn out to be the biggest letdowns of all.

Giving and receiving gifts isn’t just limited to Christmas. People exchange all types of gifts with one another for all sorts of reasons.

Gifting is even part of the scientific enterprise—with the gifts taking on the form of scientific discoveries and advances. Many times, discoveries lead to new beneficial insights and technologies—gifts for humanity. Other times, these breakthroughs are gifts for scientists, signaling a new way to approach a scientific problem or opening up new vistas of investigation.

Soft Tissue Remnants Preserved in Fossils

One such gift was given to the scientific community over a decade ago by Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University. Schweitzer and her team of collaborators recovered flexible, hollow, and transparent blood vessels from the remains of a T. rex specimen after removing the mineral component of the fossil.1 These blood vessels harbored microstructures with a cell-like morphology (form and structure) that she and her collaborators interpreted to be the remnants of red blood cells. This work showed conclusively that soft tissue materials could be preserved in fossil remains.

Though unexpected, the discovery was a landmark achievement for paleontology. Since Schweitzer’s discovery, paleontologists have unearthed the remnants of all sorts of soft tissue materials from fossils representing a wide range of organisms. (For a catalog of some of these finds, see my book Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth.)

With access to soft tissue materials in fossils, paleontologists have a new window into the biology of Earth’s ancient life.

The Scientific Case for a Young Earth

Some Christians also saw Schweitzer’s discovery as a gift. But for them the value of this scientific present wasn’t the insight it provides about past life on Earth. Instead, they viewed this discovery (and others like it) as evidence that the earth must be no more than a few thousand years old. From a young-earth creationist (YEC) perspective, the survival of soft tissue materials in fossils indicates that these remains can’t be millions of years old. As a case in point, at the time Schweitzer reported her findings, John Morris, a young-earth proponent from the Institute for Creation Research, wrote:

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how soft tissue could have lasted even 5,000 years or so since the Flood of Noah’s day when creationists propose the dinosaur was buried. Such a thing could hardly happen today, for soft tissue decays rather quickly under any condition.2

In other words, from a YEC perspective, it is impossible for fossils to contain soft tissue remnants and be millions of years old. Soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long; they should readily degrade in a few thousand years. From a YEC view, soft tissue discoveries challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the fossils’ ages and, consequently, Earth’s antiquity. Furthermore, these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

Admittedly, on the surface the argument carries some weight. At first glance, it is hard to envision how soft tissue materials could survive for vast periods of time, given the wide range of mechanisms that drive the degradation of biological materials.

Preservation of Soft Tissues in Fossil Remains

Despite this first impression, over the last decade or so paleontologists have identified a number of mechanisms that can delay the degradation of soft tissues long enough for them to become entombed within a mineral shell. When this entombment happens, the soft tissue materials escape further degradation (for the most part). In other words, it is a race against time. Can mineral entombment take place before the soft tissue materials fully decompose? If so, then soft tissue remnants can survive for hundreds of millions of years. And any chemical or physical process that can delay the degradation will contribute to soft tissue survival by giving the entombment process time to take place.

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I describe several mechanisms that likely promote soft tissue survival. Since the book’s publication (2016), researchers have deepened their understanding of the processes that make it possible for soft tissues to survive. The recent work of an international team of collaborators headed by researchers from Yale University provides an example of this growing insight.3

These researchers discovered that the deposition environment during the fossilization process plays a significant role in soft tissue preservation, and they have identified the chemical reactions that contribute to this preservation. The team examined 24 specimens of biomineralized vertebrate tissues ranging in age from modern to the Late Jurassic (approximately 163–145 million years ago) time frame. These specimens were taken from both chemically oxidative and reductive environments.

After demineralizing the samples, the researchers discovered that all modern specimens yielded soft tissues. However, demineralization only yielded soft tissues for fossils formed under oxidative conditions. Fossils formed under reductive conditions failed to yield any soft tissue material, whatsoever. The soft tissues from the oxidative settings (which included extracellular matrices, cell remnants, blood vessel remnants, and nerve materials) were stained brown. Researchers noted that the brown color of the soft tissue materials increased in intensity as a function of the fossil’s age, with older specimens displaying greater browning than younger specimens.

The team was able to reproduce this brown color in soft tissues taken from modern-day specimens by heating the samples and exposing them to air. This process converted the soft tissues from translucent white to brown in appearance.

Using Raman spectroscopy, the researchers detected spectral signatures for proteins and N-heterocycle pyridine rings in the soft tissue materials. They believe that the N-heterocycle pyridine rings arise from the formation of advanced glycoxidation end-products (AGEs) and advanced lipoxidation end-products (ALEs). AGEs and ALEs are the by-products of the reactions that take place between proteins and sugars (AGEs) and proteins and lipids or fats (ALEs). (As an aside, AGEs and ALEs form when foods are cooked, and they occur at high levels when food is burnt, giving overly cooked foods their brownish color.) The researchers noted that spectral features for N-heterocycle pyridine rings become more prominent for soft tissues isolated from older fossil specimens, with the spectral features for the proteins becoming less pronounced.

AGEs and ALEs are heavily cross-linked compounds. This chemical property makes them extremely difficult to break down once they form. In other words, the formation of AGEs and ALEs in soft tissue remnants delays their decomposition long enough for mineral entombment to take place.

Iron from the environment or released from red blood cells promotes the formation of AGEs and ALEs. So do alkaline conditions.

In addition to stabilizing soft tissues from degradation because of the cross-links, AGEs and ALEs protect adjacent proteins from breakdown because of their hydrophobic (water repellent) nature. Water promotes soft tissue breakdown through a chemical process called hydrolysis. But because AGEs and ALEs are hydrophobic, they inhibit the hydrolytic reactions that would otherwise break down proteins that escape glycoxidation and lipoxidation reactions.

Finally, AGEs and ALEs are also resistant to microbial attack, further adding to the stability of the soft tissue materials. In other words, soft tissue materials recovered from fossil specimens are not the original, intact material, because they have undergone extensive chemical alteration. As it turns out, this alteration stabilized the soft tissue remnants long enough for mineral entombment to occur.

In short, this research team has made significant strides toward understanding the process by which soft tissue materials become preserved in fossil remains. The recovery of soft tissue materials from the ancient fossil remains makes perfect sense within an old-earth framework. These insights also undermine what many people believe to be one of the most compelling scientific arguments for a young earth.

Why Does It Matter?

In my experience, many skeptics and seekers alike reject Christian truth claims because of the misperception that Genesis 1 teaches that the earth is only 6,000 years old. This misperception becomes reinforced by vocal (and well-meaning) YECs who not only claim the only valid interpretation of Genesis 1 is the calendar-day view, but also maintain that ample scientific evidence—such as the recovery of soft tissue remnants in fossils—exists for a young earth.

Yet, as the latest work headed by scientists from Yale University demonstrates, soft tissue remnants associated with fossils find a ready explanation from an old-earth standpoint. It has been a gift to science that advances understanding of a sophisticated process.

Unfortunately, for YECs the fossil-associated soft tissues have turned out to be little more than a bad white elephant gift.

Resources:

Endnotes
  1. Mary H. Schweitzer et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex,” Science 307 (March 25, 2005): 1952–55, doi:10.1126/science.1108397.
  2. John D. Morris, “Dinosaur Soft Parts,” Acts & Facts (June 1, 2005), icr.org/article/2032/.
  3. Jasmina Wiemann et al., “Fossilization Transforms Vertebrate Hard Tissue Proteins into N-Heterocyclic Polymers,” Nature Communications 9 (November 9, 2018): 4741, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07013-3.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/12/19/soft-tissue-preservation-mechanism-stabilizes-the-case-for-earth-s-antiquity

Is Fossil-Associated Cholesterol a Biomarker for a Young Earth?

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 24, 2018

Like many Americans, I receive a yearly physical. Even though I find these exams to be a bit of a nuisance, I recognize their importance. These annual checkups allow my doctor to get a read on my overall health.

An important part of any physical exam is blood work. Screening a patient’s blood for specific biomarkers gives physicians data that allows them to assess a patient’s risk for various diseases. For example, the blood levels of total cholesterol and the ratio of HDLs to LDLs serve as useful biomarkers for cardiovascular disease.

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Figure 1: Cholesterol. Image credit: BorisTM. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cholesterol.svg.

As it turns out, physicians aren’t the only ones who use cholesterol as a diagnostic biomarker. So, too, do paleontologists. In fact, recently a team of paleontologists used cholesterol biomarkers to determine the identity of an enigmatic fossil recovered in Precambrian rock formations that dated to 588 million years in age.1 This diagnosis was possible because they were able to extract low levels of cholesterol derivatives from the fossil. Based on the chemical profile of the extracts, researchers concluded that Dickinsonia specimens are the fossil remains of some of the oldest animals on Earth.

Without question, this finding has important implications for how we understand the origin and history of animal life on Earth. But young-earth creationists (YECs) think that this finding has important implications for another reason. They believe that the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from Dickinsonia provides compelling evidence that the earth is only a few thousand years old and the fossil record results from a worldwide flood event. They argue that there is no way organic materials such as cholesterol could survive for hundreds of millions of years in the geological column. Consequently, they argue that the methods used to date fossils such as Dickinsonia must not be reliable, calling into question the age of the earth determined by radiometric techniques.

Is this claim valid? Is the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from fossils that date to hundreds of millions of years evidence for a young earth? Or can the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from 588 million-year-old fossils be explained in an old-earth paradigm?

How Can Cholesterol Derivatives Survive for Millions of Years?

Despite the protests of YECs, for several converging reasons the isolation of cholesterol derivatives from the Dickinsonia specimen is easily explained—even if the specimen dates to 588 million years in age.

The research team did not recover high levels of cholesterol from the Dickinsonia specimen (which would be expected if the fossils were only 3,000 years old), but trace levels of cholestane (which would be expected if the fossils were hundreds of millions of years old). Cholestane is a chemical derivative of cholesterol that is produced when cholesterol undergoes diagenetic changes.

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Figure 2: Cholestane. Image credit: Calvero. (Self-made with ChemDraw.) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cholestane.svg.

Cholestane is a chemically inert hydrocarbon that is expected to be stable for vast periods of time. In fact, geochemists have recovered steranes (other biomarkers) from rock formations that date to 2.8 billion years in age.

The Dickinsonia specimens that yielded cholestanes were exceptionally well-preserved. Specifically, they were unearthed from the White Sea Cliffs in northwest Russia. This rock formation has escaped deep burial and geological heating, making it all the more reasonable that compounds such as cholestanes could survive for nearly 600 million years.

In short, the recovery of cholesterol derivatives from Dickinsonia does not reflect poorly on the health of the old-earth paradigm. When the chemical properties of cholesterol and cholestane are considered, and given the preservation conditions of the Dickinsonia specimens, the interpretation that these materials were recovered from 588-million-year-old fossil specimens passes the physical exam.

Resources

Featured image: Dickinsonia Costata. Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DickinsoniaCostata.jpg.

Endnotes

  1. Ilya Bobrovskiy et al., “Ancient Steroids Establish the Ediacaran Fossil Dickinsonia as One of the Earliest Animals,” Science 361 (September 21, 2018): 1246–49, doi:10.1126/science.aat7228.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/10/24/is-fossil-associated-cholesterol-a-biomarker-for-a-young-earth

Does the Recovery of Oils from a Fossilized Bird Evince a Young Earth?

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BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 20, 2017

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

–Acts 17:11

Is there scientific evidence that the earth is only 6,000 years old?

In spite of the valiant efforts of young-earth creationists (YECs), I have yet to come across any compelling scientific arguments that the earth is only a few thousand years old. At least not until I learned about the numerous discoveries of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossils that date to several hundred million years in age, in some instances. (For a detailed survey of the soft tissues recovered from the fossil record, check out my book, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth.) These discoveries give me some pause for thought about the age-of-the-earth measurements.

These types of discoveries generate a lot of excitement among paleontologists. Having access to soft-tissue materials provides the scientific community with inspiring new insights into the biology of these ancient creatures.

They also create a lot of excitement for YECs, because the findings suggest to them that the geologists’ dating methods are unreliable. Before these discoveries, very few scientists would have ever thought that soft-tissue materials could survive in the geological layers for thousands—let alone hundreds of millions—of years because of unrelenting decomposition processes. And yet, the number of soft-tissue fossil discoveries continues to mount. For example, investigators from the UK, the US, and Germany recently reported on the recovery of endogenous oils from the fossilized uropygial gland of a bird specimen that dates to 48 million years in age.I will take a closer look at what they found after a bit of explanation to show why it is critical to understand such a discovery.

For YECs, the isolation of soft-tissue materials from fossils indicates that the fossils cannot be millions of years old but, at best, only a few thousand years old—and most likely deposited by a catastrophic worldwide flood. They reason that if the fossils are only a few thousand years old, then the methods used to age-date the fossils must be faulty. That being the case, then the same methods used to date the earth, too, must be flawed.

As an old-earth creationist, I must admit the discovery of soft-tissue materials associated with fossils represents one of the most interesting arguments for a young earth I’ve encountered. On the surface, the argument seems reasonable. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that many YEC organizations (such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research) have elevated the existence of soft tissue materials in the fossil record to one of their central arguments for a young earth. I observe many well-meaning Christians following suit, using this same argument in their efforts to convince seekers and skeptics about the scientific reliability of the Genesis 1 creation account. Unfortunately, most people who are scientifically minded fail to find this argument persuasive because of the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence for the reliability of radiometric dating. And as a result, skeptics are often driven further away from the Christian faith.

When using scientific discoveries to demonstrate God’s existence and to defend the reliability of the biblical creation accounts, it is critical to adopt a posture like that of the Bereans. It is incumbent on all of us to investigate or “examine” on our own to ensure the arguments we use are sound.

That’s why I wrote Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this book, I make every effort to take the soft-tissue argument seriously. But, following the Bereans’ example, I thoroughly examine each premise of their argument to see if it holds up to scrutiny, including their central claim: soft-tissue materials cannot persist in fossils that are millions of years old.

Though admittedly counterintuitive, after thorough investigation into this claim, I have come to believe that soft-tissue remnants can survive in the fossil record. To illustrate how this survival is possible, let’s use the recently discovered 48-million-year preening oil isolated, fossilized uropygial gland as a case study.

Discovery of Preening Oil in a 48-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Gland

The 48-million-year-old fossil bird specimen that possessed uropygial gland oils was recovered from the Messel Pit. Located in Darmstadt, Germany, this UNESCO World Heritage site has yielded a number of important vertebrate fossils throughout its history and still serves as a source of exciting new fossil discoveries today.

While carefully examining this bird specimen (which still remains unclassified), the paleontologists noted the outline of the uropygial gland at the base of the tail region. To confirm this interpretation, the researchers attempted to extract remnants of preening oil from this putative gland. Motivated by previous soft-tissue finds and the discovery of lipids (a class of biomolecules that include oils) in other ancient geological deposits, the research team removed milligram amounts of the fossilized uropygial gland from the specimen and extracted material from the sample. Afterward, they subjected the extracts to chemical analysis, relying on a technique known as pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Analysis with this technique begins with a heating step that decomposes the analytes into small molecular fragments that, in turn, are separated by gas chromatography and then analyzed by mass spectrometry. This technique produces profiles of molecular fragments that serve as a fingerprint, helping scientists determine the identity of compounds in the sample.

The research team detected C-8 to C-30 n-alkanes, n-alkenes, and alkylbenzenes in the uropygial gland extracted—as expected if the fossil contained remnants for preening oil. The profiles of the fossilized uropygial gland extracts differed from the profiles of extracts taken from shales that make up the geological layer that originally housed the fossil specimen. This result indicates that the uropygial gland extracts are not due to contamination from the surrounding geological layers. When the researchers compared the extracts of the fossilized glands to extracts of uropygial glands of extant birds (such as the common blackbird, the ringed teal, and the middle spotted woodpecker), they noted a difference in the profiles. This difference most likely reflects chemical alteration of the original preening oil during the fossilization process.

How the Preening Oil Was Preserved

So how can soft tissue material, such as preening oil, persist in fossils for millions and millions of years?

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I point out that paleontologists believe that soft-tissue preservation reflects a race between two competing processes: decomposition and mineral entombment. If mineral entombment wins, then whatever soft tissue that has avoided decomposition remains behind—for millions and millions of years. Once encased in mineral deposits, soft-tissue materials become isolated and protected from the environment, arresting the decomposition processes that would otherwise destroy them.

Anything that slows down the rate of decomposition will help soft-tissue materials to hang around long enough for mineral entombment to take place. One factor contributing to soft-tissue survival is the structural durability of the molecules that make up the soft tissues. In most instances, the soft tissues that survive are made up of highly durable materials. Toward this end, some of the components of preening oil (such as long chain alkanes) are chemically inert, making them resistant to chemical decomposition.

Though usually destructive, in some instances chemical reactivity can contribute to soft-tissue survival. This reactivity likely contributed to the survival of the preening oil. The team of paleontologists believes that the alkene components of the preening oils reacted to form high-molecular-weight polymers that, in turn, became resistant to chemical decomposition.

While not subject to chemical decomposition, long chain hydrocarbons would serve as an ideal food source for microbes in the environment. This process would work against preservation. But, microbial decomposition of preening oil is unlikely, because some of the components of the uropygial gland secretions possess antimicrobial activities.

Also, the shale that harbored the fossil bird is oxygen-depleted. The absence of oxygen in this geological setting most likely contributed to soft-tissue survival, preventing oxidative decomposition of the preening oil.

In other words, there are several collective mechanisms in play that would stave off the decomposition of the original preening oil, though it does look as if the original material did become chemically altered. The bottom line: There is no reason to think that soft-tissue materials derived from the original preening oil in the uropygial glands could not persist for 48 million years or longer in the fossil record.

At first glance, the soft-tissue argument for a young earth seems so compelling. Yet, when carefully evaluated (“examined”), it simply doesn’t hold up.

Becoming Bereans

As Christians, we should expect that there will be scientific discoveries that affirm our faith by revealing God’s fingerprints in nature and by supporting the creation accounts found in Scripture. Key biblical passages (such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20) teach this much. Yet, we must also recognize that as human beings interpreting nature (through science) and interpreting Scripture can be complex undertakings. As such, we can make mistakes. We are fallen creatures, we have limited knowledge, insight, and understanding, and we have preconceived notions . . . all of which influence our interpretations. And, it is for these reasons that we must all operate like the Bereans. We should respond to scientific arguments for the Christian faith with eagerness, but before we use them, we must rigorously evaluate them to ensure their validity and, if valid, to understand the arguments’ limitations. Sincere, well-meaning Christians can be wrong and can unintentionally mislead other Christians. But, when that happens it is our fault, not theirs, if we are mislead because we have failed to take the “noble,” Berean-like approach and do our homework.

Resources to Dig Deeper

Endnotes

  1. Shane O’Reilly et al., “Preservation of Uropygial Gland Lipids in a 48-Million-Year-Old Bird,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284 (October 18, 2017): doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1050.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/12/20/does-the-recovery-of-oils-from-a-fossilized-bird-evince-a-young-earth

Does Radiocarbon Dating Prove a Young Earth? A Response to Vernon R. Cupps

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BY FAZALE RANA – APRIL 19, 2017

In my experience, one of the most persuasive scientific claims for a young Earth is the detection of carbon-14 in geological samples such as coal and fossilized dinosaur remains.1According to young-earth creationists (YECs), if the coal samples and fossils are truly millions of years old (as the scientific community claims), then there shouldn’t be any trace of carbon-14 in these samples. Why? It’s because the half-life of carbon-14 is about 5,700 years, meaning that all the detectable carbon-14 should have disappeared from the samples long before they reach even 100,000 years of age.

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I respond to this young-earth argument, suggesting three mechanisms that can account for carbon-14 in fossil remains (and by extension, in geological materials) from an old-earth perspective.

When YECs detect carbon-14, they find it at low levels, corresponding to age dates older than 30,000 years (not 3,000 to 6,000 years old, as their model predicts, by the way). These low levels make it reasonable to think that some of the carbon-14 signal comes from contamination of the sample by, say, microorganisms picked up from the environment.

These low levels also make it conceivable that some of the detected carbon-14 is due to a ubiquitous carbon-14 background. Cosmic rays are continuously producing radiocarbon from nitrogen-14. Because of this nonstop production, carbon-14 is everywhere and will show up at extremely low levels in any measurement that is made, even if it isn’t present in the actual sample.

It is also possible that some of the carbon-14 in the fossil and coal samples arises from the in situ conversion of nitrogen-14 to carbon-14 driven by the decay of radioactive elements in the environment. Because fossils and coal derive from once-living organisms, there will be plenty of nitrogen-14 contained in these specimens. For example, environmental uranium and thorium would readily infuse into the interiors of fossils, and as these elements decay, the high energy they release will convert nitrogen-14 to carbon-14.

Employing a “back-of-the-envelope” flux analysis, Vernon Cupps—a YEC affiliated with the Institute of Creation Research—has challenged my assessment, concluding that neither (1) the production of carbon-14 from cosmic radiation nor (2) the decay of radioactive isotopes in the environment is sufficient to account for the carbon-14 detected in fossil and geological samples.2

Though I think his analysis may be unrealistically simplistic, let’s assume Cupps’s calculations are correct. He still misses my point. In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I argue that all three possible sources simultaneously contribute to the detectable carbon-14. In other words, while no single source may fully account for the detectable carbon-14, when combined, all three can. Cupps’s analysis neglects the contribution of the ubiquitous background carbon-14 and possible sources of contamination from the environment.

Ironically, the low levels of carbon-14 detected in fossils and geological specimens by YECs actually argue against a young Earth, not an old Earth.

How can that be?

If fossil and geological specimens are between 3,000 and 6,000 years old, then somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of the original carbon-14 should remain in the sample. This amount of material should generate a strong carbon-14 signal. The fact that these specimens all age-date to 30,000 to 45,000 years old means that less than 2 percent of the original carbon-14 remains in these samples—if the results of this measurement are taken at face value. It becomes difficult to explain this result if these samples are less than 6,000 years old. On the other hand, the weak carbon-14 signal measured by YECs does make sense if carbon-14 does not reflect the material originally in the sample, but instead stems from a combination of (1) contamination from the environment, (2) ubiquitous background radiocarbon, and/or (3) irradiation of the samples by isotopes such as uranium or thorium in the environment.

To put it plainly, it is difficult to reconcile the carbon-14 measurements made by YECs with fossil and geological samples that are 3,000 to 6,000 years old, Cupps’s analysis notwithstanding.

On the other hand, an old-earth perspective has the explanatory power to account for the low levels of carbon-14 associated with fossils and other geological samples.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Vernon R. Cupps, “Radiocarbon Dating Can’t Prove an Old Earth,” Acts & Facts, April 2017, https://www.icr.org/article/9937.
  2. Ibid.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/04/19/does-radiocarbon-dating-prove-a-young-earth-a-response-to-vernon-r.-cupps

Does Dinosaur Tissue Challenge Evolutionary Timescales? A Response to Kevin Anderson, Part 1

doesdinosaurtissuechallengepart1

BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 11, 2017

Is there a bona fide scientific challenge to the age of the Earth, which is measured to be 4.5 billion years old? As an old-earth creationist (OEC), I would answer no. But, there has been one scientific argument for a young Earth that has given me some pause for thought: the discovery of soft tissue remnants in the fossilized remains of dinosaurs (and other organisms). Paleontologists have discovered the remnants of blood vessels, red blood cells, bone cells, and protein fragments, such as collagen and keratin, in the fossilized remains of dinosaurs that age-date older than 65 million years.

These unexpected finds have become central to the case made by young-earth creationists (YEC) for a 6,000-year-old Earth. In effect, the argument goes like this: Soft tissues shouldn’t survive for millions of years. Instead, these materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. Accordingly, the discovery of soft tissue remnants associated with fossils is a prima facie challenge to the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. YECs argue that these discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

As I detail in my book Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, there are good reasons to think that radiometric dating methods are reliable. And, that being the case, then there must be an explanation for soft tissue survival. Despite the claims made by YECs, there arescientific mechanisms that can account for the survival of soft-tissue materials for millions of years, as discussed in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth.

In response to my book (and other recent challenges) to the soft-tissue argument for a young Earth, YEC Kevin Anderson wrote a piece for Answers in Depth, the journal of Answers in Genesis, titled: “Dinosaur Tissue: A Biochemical Challenge to the Evolutionary Timescale.”

In this technically rigorous piece, Anderson argues that paleontologists now view soft-tissue remnants associated with the fossilized remains of dinosaur (and other organisms) as commonplace. On this point, Anderson and I would agree. However, Anderson complains that the scientific community ignores the troubling implications of the soft-tissue finds. He states: “Despite a large body of evidence for the authenticity of the tissue, there remains a pattern of denial within the evolutionist community—presumably to downplay the ramifications of this discovery. . . . Apparently many find the soft-tissue evidence much easier to dismiss than to understand and explain. Perhaps this should not be too surprising. The tissue is certainly difficult to account for within the popular geologic timescale.”1

Yet, in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I explain how soft-tissue remnants associated with fossils are accounted for within “the popular geologic timescale.”

Soft-Tissue Survival in Fossils

Once entombed within a mineral “encasement” (which occurs as the result of the fossilization process), soft-tissue remnants can survive for vast periods of time. The key: the soft tissues must be preserved until entombment happens. In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I identify several factors that promote soft-tissue preservation during the fossilization process. One relates to the structure of the molecules comprising the soft tissues. Some molecules are much more durable than others, making them much more likely to survive until entombment.

This durability partially explains the chemical profile of the compounds associated with soft-tissue remnants. For example, paleontologists have uncovered collagen and keratin fragments associated with dinosaur fossils. These finds make sense because these molecules are heavily cross-linked. And they occur at high levels in bones (collagen) and feathers, skin, and claws (keratin). Researchers also believe that iron released from hemoglobin, and eumelanin released from melanosomes associated with feathers, function as fixatives to further stabilize these molecules, delaying their decomposition.

But What about Measured Collagen Decomposition Rates?

Kevin Anderson agrees that some molecules, such as collagen, resist rapid degradation. However, he rejects the durability argument I present in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth as part of the explanation for collagen (and keratin) survivability, citing work published in 2011 by researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK.2

In this study, investigators monitored collagen loss in cattle and human bones at 90 °C (194 °F). Even though this high temperature doesn’t directly apply to the fossilization process, the researchers employed a temperature close to the boiling point of water to gather rate data in a reasonable time frame. Still, it took them about one month to generate the necessary data, even at this high temperature. In turn, they used this data to calculate the bone loss at 10 °C (50 °F), which corresponds to the average temperature of a typical archaeological site in a country such as Great Britain. These calculations made use of the Arrhenius rate equation. This equation allows scientists to calculate the rate for a chemical process (such as the breakdown of collagen) at any temperature, once the rate has been experimentally determined for a single temperature. The only assumption is that the physical and chemical properties of the system (in this case, collagen) are the same as the temperature used to measure the reaction rate and the temperature used to calculate the reaction rate.

But, as I discuss in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, if the conditions differ, then a phenomenon known as an Arrhenius plot break occurs. This discontinuity makes it impossible to calculate the reaction rate.

On this basis, I questioned if the data generated by the University of Manchester scientists for collagen breakdown in bone near the boiling point of water is relevant to breakdown rates for temperatures that would be under 100 °F, let alone to temperatures near 50 °F. I speculated that at such high temperatures, the collagen would undergo structural changes (for example, breaking of inter-chain hydrogen bonds that cross-link collagen chains together) making this biomolecule much more susceptible to chemical degradation than at lower temperatures where collagen would remain in its native state. In other words, the conditions employed by the research team from the University of Manchester may not be relevant to collagen preservation in fossil remains.

Kevin Anderson challenged my claim, stating, “Dr. Rana speculates that high temperatures may unexpectedly alter how collagen will degrade, so perhaps the Arrhenius equation cannot be properly applied. However, he fails to offer any experimental support for his conclusion. If he wants to challenge these decay studies, he needs to provide experimental evidence that collagen decay is somehow an exception to this equation.”3

Fair enough. Yet, it was relatively easy for me to find the experimental data he requires. A quick literature search produced work published in the early 1970s by a team of researchers from the USDA in Beltsville, MD describing the thermal denaturation profiles of intact collagen from a variety of animal sources.4 The onset temperatures for the denaturation process typically begin near 60 °C (140 °F), reach the mid-point of the denaturation around 70 °C (158 °F), and end around 80 °C (176 °F). In other words, collagen denaturation occurs at temperatures well below the temperatures used by the University of Manchester scientists in their study.

From the denaturation profiles, these researchers determined that the loss of native structure primarily entails the unraveling of the collagen triple helix. This unraveling would expose the protein backbone, making it much easier to undergo chemical degradation.

In Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, I discuss another reason why the study results obtained by the University of Manchester scientists don’t contradict the recovery of collagen from 70–80 million-year-old dinosaur remains. In effect, this research team was addressing a different question. Namely, how long can collagen last in animal remains in a form that can be isolated and used as a source of genetic information about the organisms found at archaeological and fossil sites?

In other words, they weren’t interested in how long chemically and physically altered collagen fragments would persist in fossil remains, but, instead, how long collagen will retain a useful form that can yield insight into the natural history of past organisms. Specifically, they were interested in the survival of “the non-helical collagen telopeptides located at the very ends of each chain and recently considered potentially useful for species identification in archaeological tissues.”5

The researchers lament that this region of the collagen molecules is “lost to the burial environment within a relatively short period of geologic time.”6 As they point out, the parts of the collagen molecule most useful to characterize the natural history of past organisms and their relationships to extant creatures, unfortunately, are “regions of the protein that do not benefit from as many interchain hydrogen bonds as the helical region, and thus will likely be the first to degrade.”7

The researchers also point out that they expect collagen to persist for much longer than 700,000 years, but in a chemically altered state due to cross-linking reactions and other types of chemical modifications. They state, “Collagen could plausibly be detected at lower concentrations [than 1 percent of the original amounts] in much older material but likely in a diagenetically-altered state and at levels whereby separation from endogenous and exogenous contaminations is much more time-consuming, costly and perhaps applicable only to atypically large taxa that can offer sufficient fossil material for destructive analysis.”8

In other words, chemically altered forms of collagen will persist in animal remains well beyond a million years, particularly if they are large creatures such as dinosaurs. And this is precisely what paleontologists have discovered associated with dinosaur fossils—fragments of diagentically altered collagen (and keratin).

But What about Molecular Fragments Derived from Non-Durable Proteins Isolated from Dinosaur Remains?

Another related challenge raised by Anderson relates to the recovery of molecular fragments of other proteins from dinosaur fossils that are much less durable than collagen. Anderson writes: “Several of these proteins (e.g., myosin, actin, and tropomyosin) are not nearly as structurally ‘tough’ as collagen. . . . Even if there were a biochemical basis that enabled collagen fragments to survive millions of years, this cannot be said about all these other dinosaur proteins.”9

As I point out in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, in addition to molecular durability, there are several other factors that contribute to soft-tissue preservation. One relates to abundance. Biomolecules that occur at high levels in soft tissue will be more likely to leave behind traces in fossilized remains than molecules that occur at relatively low levels.

Along these lines, collagen and keratin would have been some of the most abundant proteins in dinosaurs and ancient birds, making up connective tissue and feathers, skin, and claws, respectively. Likewise, actin, myosin, and tropomyosin would also have occurred at high levels in dinosaurs and ancient birds, because these proteins are the major components of muscle. So even though these proteins aren’t as durable as collagen or keratin, it still makes sense that fragments of these biomolecules would be associated with dinosaur fossils because of their abundances.

In short, the durability and abundances of proteins provide a credible explanation for the occurrence of soft-tissue remnants in the fossilized remains of dinosaurs. But these two features don’t fully account for soft-tissue preservation. As it turns out, there are additional factors to consider.

In his article, Anderson also challenges what he refers to as “the most popular explanation for prolonged preservation” of soft tissue. Namely, the “iron model.”10 In part 2 of my response to Kevin Anderson, I will describe and respond to his critique of the iron model and other preservation mechanisms.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Kevin Anderson, “Dinosaur Tissue: A Biochemical Challenge to the Evolutionary Timescale,” Answers in Genesis 11 (2016): https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/dinosaur-tissue/.
  2. Mike Buckley and Matthew James Collins, “Collagen Survival and Its Use for Species Identification in Holocene-Lower Pleistocene Bone Fragments from British Archaeological and Paleontological Sites,” Antiqua 1 (2011): e1, doi:10.4081/antiqua.2011.e1.
  3. Anderson, “Dinosaur Tissue.”
  4. Philip E. McClain and Eugene R. Wiley, “Differential Scanning Calorimeter Studies of the Thermal Transitions of Collagen: Implications on Structure and Stability,” Journal of Biological Chemistry 247 (February 1972): 692–97, https://www.jbc.org/content/247/3/692.full.pdf.
  5. Buckley and Collins, “Collagen Survival.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Anderson, “Dinosaur Tissue.”
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/01/11/does-dinosaur-tissue-challenge-evolutionary-timescales-a-response-to-kevin-anderson-part-1

Science News Flash: An Old-Earth Perspective on Dinosaur Feathers Preserved in Amber

sciencenewflashanoldearthperspective.png

BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 9, 2016

Whenever we are in a foreign country, my wife loves to shop at local, out-of-the-way markets. She always finds some of the most interesting souvenirs.

It turns out the same is true for paleontologist Lida Xing who purchased several amber pieces from a market in Myitkyina in the country of Myanmar. The amber sold at the market comes from a nearby mine in the Hukawng Valley. While most buyers are looking for amber to make jewelry, Xing was looking for amber with inclusions of plant and animal remains. The amber from the mine dates to 99 million years. Because of the amber’s age, the well-preserved plant and animal remains entombed by this fossilized tree resin offer a unique glimpse at ancient life on Earth, providing details and insight that far exceed those available from highly compressed fossil remains that typically comprise the fossil record.

As fate would have it, one of the amber pieces Xing purchased contains a piece of a dinosaur tail (perhaps from a maniraptor) with attached feathers! This discovery is described in a paper that will appear in the December 19 issue of Current Biology.Yesterday the paper was published online ahead of the publication date and it has already generated headlines both in the popular news and on social media.

This is not the first time researchers have discovered feathers preserved in amber. But it isthe first time they have observed feathers associated with parts of a dinosaur, in this instance a section of the tail (near the middle or end) that includes eight vertebrae. The anatomical features clearly indicates that the preserved tail belongs to a large group of dinosaurs labeled the coelurosaurs.

It goes without saying that this find has already caused quite a bit of a stir because of its important implications for evolutionary and creation models for bird origins.

An Evolutionary Perspective of the Discovery

For many in the scientific community this discovery further affirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, with feathered dinosaurs viewed as transitional intermediates. Along these lines, the researchers describe the dinosaur feathers preserved in amber as transitional, noting that the feather’s central shaft (rachis) is poorly defined. On this basis, the researchers argue that the rachis was a late-appearing feature in feathers, forming when the barbs of the feather fused together.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

As an old-earth creationist, I’m skeptical about the evolutionary account that has birds evolving from theropods. In fact, this latest discovery only adds to my skepticism.

Paleontologists interpret feathered dinosaurs from the fossil record as transitional intermediates between theropods and birds—including the feathered dinosaur tail found in amber. Yet, each occurrence of feathered dinosaurs in the fossil record appear after the first true bird, Archaeopteryx.2 Based on the fossil record, this ancient bird appeared on Earth around 155 million years ago. Archaeopteryx’s feathers were identical to the feathers of modern birds. In fact, the same research team discovered bird feathers in 99-million-year-old amber from the same source that yielded the amber with the dinosaur feathers. The bird feathers, like those of Archaeopteryx, are identical to those found in modern birds.

It is hard to imagine how the “primitive” feathers associated with the dinosaur tail (again, dated at 99 million years in age) could be transitional if they appear over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx and co-occur with feathers from a bird belonging to enantiornithes.

This problem is not unique to the bird fossil record. There are several instances in which presumed transitional forms appear in the fossil record well after the first appearance of their “evolutionary descendants.” In fact, paleontologist have a name for this phenomenon: a temporal paradox.

For a more complete discussion of the problems I see with the proposed evolutionary link between birds and theropod dinosaurs, see “Birds in the Fossil Record” (listed in the resource section below).

A Young-Earth Creationist Perspective of the Discovery

One exciting aspect of this find is the possibility that soft-tissue remnants associated with the features may be preserved in the amber. The researchers discovered iron (in the ferrous form) associated with the carbonized feather remains. They speculate that this iron derives from hemoglobin originally found in the tail muscle tissue. On this basis, the research team speculates that soft-tissue remnants derived from keratin may be present in the amber-entombed specimen.

In recent years, young-earth creationists have made use of these types of finds to argue that it is impossible for such fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

An Old-Earth Creationist Response

These types of claims prompted me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. In this work (and elsewhere), I explain why the recovery of soft-tissue remnants associated with fossil finds is illegitimate evidence for a young Earth.

Given the structural robustness of keratin, and the preservative effect of ferrous iron, it is completely reasonable to think that keratin remnants associated with the feathers could survive long enough to be completely entombed by the amber and eventually persist for nearly 100 million years.

Though this find will be interpreted by the scientific community from an evolutionary vantage point and, more than likely, opted by young-earth creationists to challenge the antiquity of Earth and life on Earth, the dinosaur feathers entombed in amber can readily be accommodated from an old-earth creationist vantage point.

Resources

Creation vs. Evolution Controversy

Is There a Controversy about Evolution?” by Fazale Rana (article)
The Creation-Evolution Controversy in Jurassic World” by Fazale Rana (article)

Age-of-the-Earth Controversy

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth” by Fazale Rana (book).
Can Keratin in Feathers Survive for Millions of Years?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Lida Xing et al., “A Feathered Dinosaur Tail with Primitive Plumage Trapped in Mid-Cretaceous Amber,” Current Biology 26 (December 19, 2016): 1–9, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.10.008.
  2. Some paleontologists claim that the temporal paradox for bird origins was solved based on the discovery of a feathered theropod that dates between 151 and 161 million years in age. (See Dongyu Hu et al., “A Pre-Archaeopteryx Troodontid Theropod from China with Long Feathers on the Metatarsus,” Nature 461 [October 1, 2009]: 640–43, doi:10.1038/nature08322.) However, at best, this find demonstrates the co-occurrence of feathered dinosaurs and the first true bird, when the error bars of the age-date measurements are taken into account.
  3. Lida Xing et al., “Mummified Precocial Bird Wings in Mid-Cretaceous Burmese Amber,” Nature Communications 7 (June 28, 2016): 12089, doi:10.1038/ncomms12089.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/12/09/science-news-flash-an-old-earth-perspective-on-dinosaur-feathers-preserved-in-amber

Can Keratin in Feathers Survive for Millions of Years?

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BY FAZALE RANA – AUGUST 10, 2016

I don’t like conflict. In fact, I try to avoid it whenever possible. And that’s part of the reason I never wanted to become directly involved in the young-earth/old-earth controversy that takes place within the church.

Frankly, I find the debate tedious, and a distraction from the real work at hand: helping skeptics and seekers recognize the scientific evidence for God’s existence and Scripture’s reliability.

Of course, if people ask me age-of-the-earth questions, I am quick to explain why I hold to an old-earth/day-age interpretation for Genesis 1 and what I see as biblical, theological, and scientific issues with a young-earth/calendar day interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account.

Soft Tissues in Fossils and the Age of the Earth

Over the course of the last few years, one question that has come up a lot relates to the discovery of soft tissue remnants in fossils, such as the blood cells and blood vessels remains recovered from a T. rex specimen that age-dates to 68 million years old. Young earth creationists make use of these surprising results to argue that it is impossible for fossils to be millions of years old. They argue that soft tissues shouldn’t survive that long. These materials should readily degrade in a few thousand years. In their view, these finds challenge the reliability of radiometric dating methods used to determine the age of these fossils, and along with it, Earth’s antiquity. Instead, they argue that these breakthrough discoveries provide compelling scientific evidence for a young Earth and support the idea that the fossil record results from a recent global (worldwide) flood.

Because I’m a biochemist—and an old earth creationist—people frequently ask me how I make sense of the T. rex find and the discovery of other types of soft tissue remnants in the fossil remains of other creatures that age-date to several hundred million years, in some cases.

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth

These queries eventually motivated me to write Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth. And I am glad I did. Aside from the young-earth/old-earth debate, the scientific questions related to soft tissue finds in fossils are captivating.

The central question of Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth centers around soft tissue durability: If radiometric dating is reliable, then how is it possible for soft tissue remnants to persist for millions of years?

Recent work by a research team at North Carolina State University (NC State)—headed up by Mary Schweitzer—helps address this question, specifically focusing on beta-keratin fragments recovered from the fossilized feathers and claws of Shuvuuia deserti and Rahonavis ostromi.1

How Can Keratin Survive in Fossils?

As I discuss in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, some biomolecules (such as keratins) form extremely stable structures that delay their degradation. Keratins have a number of structural features (such as extensive crosslinking) that helps explain why fragments of these proteins could survive for tens of millions of years, under the right conditions.2 But my analysis was theoretical. Even though my assessment was based on sound biochemical principles, it would be nice to have some corroborating experimental evidence to support my claims. (The old saying in science applies: “theories guide, experiments decide.”) And that is precisely what the NC State researchers provide in their recent study.

Feather Decomposition

Schweitzer and her team conducted a ten-year experiment to gain insight into the natural degradation processes of feathers (and other biological materials made up of keratins such as skin, claws, beaks, and hair). To do this, they exposed feathers from a Hungarian partridge to a variety of conditions, and then analyzed the samples busing: (1) transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to monitor changes in the fine structure of the feather’s anatomy; and (2) a technique called in situ immunofluorescence to determine if pieces of keratin proteins persisted in the feather remains.

Of particular interest is the feather samples Schweitzer and her team wrapped in aluminum foil and heated in an oven for 10 years at 630°F—conditions used to sterilize glassware. Many paleontologists consider high heat to be a proxy for deep time.

Perhaps it is no surprise, when viewed under a microscope, the macroscopic features of feathers treated at high temperatures were completely lost. Instead the only thing visible were shiny black pieces of “charcoal-like” material. Yet, when examined at high magnification with a TEM, the investigators were able to visualize fragments of feather barbs. Using their immunofluorescence technique, the researchers were able to detect clear evidence of keratin fragments in the sample.

These observations align with my thoughts about keratin’s durability, making it all the more reasonable to think that soft tissue remnants persist in millions-of-years old fossil remains. In fact, when the researchers applied their immunofluorescence to the Shuvuuia desertisamples, once again, they found evidence for keratin fragments in these fossil remains.

Preservation Mechanisms

As I point out in Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth, molecular durability alone isn’t sufficient to account for soft tissue survivability. For soft tissue remnants to persist in fossil, the rate of fossilization has to outpace the rate of soft tissue degradation. When that happens, a mineral ‘casing’ will entomb the soft tissue before it completely decomposes, preserving it for paleontologists to later discover. In addition to molecular durability, scientists have identified a number of mechanisms that contribute to both the degradation and preservation of soft tissues during the process of burial and fossilization.

Along these lines, the NC State scientists speculate on processes that might extend keratin’s survivability in feathers—at least, long enough for mineral entombment to occur. They think one of their observations about the high-heat sample offers a clue. The research team noted that melanosomes (the organelles that harbor pigments, giving feathers their colors) were absent after heating for ten years at 630°F. On this basis, they conclude that paleontologists have made a mistake when they interpret microbodies as melanosomes in fossilized feathers. Instead, they think that the mirobodies derive from microbes.

This reinterpretation is good news for keratin preservation on two accounts. It is true that microbial activity can destroy soft tissues, but the NC State scientists think it can also help speed up the fossilization process leading to the preservation of keratin remnants. How? Because microbes secrete materials (called exopolymeric substances) that promote deposition of minerals, speeding up the entombment of the soft tissue. Additionally, the NC State researchers think that melanosome degradation may also be important. When these organelles break down, they release their contents (eumelanin) which may function like a fixative, slowing down tissue degradation long enough for the soft tissue to be entombed.

The NC State study has unearthed fascinating details regarding feather decomposition and provides key insights that help account for the persistence of keratin in fossilized remains of reptiles, birds, and feathered dinosaurs that date to tens of millions of years old.

Resources
Structure of Collagen Unravels the Case for a Young Earth” by Fazale Rana (Article)
Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth by Fazale Rana (Book)

Endnotes

  1. Alison Moyer, Wenxia Zheng, and Mary Schweitzer, “Keratin Durability Has Implications for the Fossil Record: Results from a 10 Year Feather Degradation Experiment,” PLoS One 11 (July 2016): e0157699, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157699.
  2. Fazale Rana, Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2016), 57–58.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/08/10/can-keratin-in-feathers-survive-for-millions-of-years