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.

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

What Does the Discovery of Earth’s Oldest Fossils Mean for Evolutionary Models?

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BY FAZALE RANA – MARCH 29, 2017

Communication can be a complex undertaking. Often, people don’t say what they really mean. And if they do, their meaning is often veiled in what they say. That’s why it’s important to learn how to read between the lines. Understanding the real meaning when something isn’t explicitly stated usually requires experience and some insider’s knowledge.

Thanks to my expertise in biochemistry and origin-of-life research and 20 years of experience as a Christian apologist, I can usually read between the lines when scientists respond to discoveries that challenge the evolutionary paradigm, such as the recently reported discovery of Earth’s oldest fossils. Because of their fear that intelligent design proponents and creationists will make use of these types of discoveries to advance the case for a Creator, scientists can be adept at masking their concern when they discuss the implications of these discoveries. But if you know how to read between the lines, their consternation is as plain as day.

Earth’s Oldest Fossils

An international team made up of scientists from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Australia recently reported on the discovery of microfossils from a geological formation in the northern part of Quebec, Canada.1 Formed from ancient hydrothermal vents, this iron-rich geological system dates somewhere between 3.77 and 4.3 billion years in age.

The putative microfossils consist of microscopic hematite filaments and tubes, like those found in modern hydrothermal vents. Today, iron-oxidizing microbes produce hematite filaments and tubes when sheaths of extracellular materials become coated by iron oxyhydroxide. Added evidence for the biogenicity of these microfossils comes from carbonate and apatite associated with the hematite structures. These compounds can also be produced as by-products of the metabolic activity of microorganisms. The research team also discovered graphite inclusions enriched in carbon-12, a geochemical signature of life. Finally, the Raman spectrum of the carbonaceous deposits display features that also point to the biological origin of this material.

Matthew Dodd, one of the research team members, argues that “we can think of alternative explanations for each of these singular observations, but why all of these features occur together can really only be explained by one thing, which is a biological interpretation.”2

The discovery of these microfossils comes on the heels of the discovery of stromatolites in newly exposed rock outcroppings in Greenland, dating at 3.7 billion years.3 Both recent discoveries corroborate earlier work that yielded several different geochemical markers for biological activity. In short, an impressive weight of evidence points to the early appearance of complex and diverse microbial life on Earth.

Skepticism about Bioauthenticity

Despite this impressive collection of evidence, several scientists have expressed skepticism about the bioauthenticity of the fossils. Journalist Sarah Kaplan explains why: “Findings like these are subject to intense scrutiny because they have potentially far-reaching implications for the study of early organisms on Earth and other planets.”4

As I have discussed previously when the discovery of 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolite fossils were unearthed in Greenland, one of the implications of the early appearance of metabolically complex and diverse microbial life on Earth is that it calls into question evolutionary explanations for the origin of life. These discoveries indicate that life appeared suddenly on Earth, in a geological instant. Yet traditionally, origin-of-life researchers maintained that life’s origin via chemical evolution would have required hundreds of millions of years, perhaps even a billion years.

This concern can be read between the lines in the objections raised by scientists responding to this discovery.

Some argue that the research team hasn’t amassed enough evidence to convince them of the biogenicity of the fossils, pointing out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But the claim that life appeared early in Earth’s history is only extraordinary within the evolutionary paradigm. To view these microfossils as extraordinary highlights the trouble these fossil finds cause for an evolutionary approach to the origin-of-life question.

Others argue that iron-oxidizing microbes are too complex to have appeared this early in Earth’s history. Some assert that the rock layers containing the fossils are much younger than 3.77 billion years, raising concerns about the dating methods used to determine the age of the rocks harboring the microfossils. Again, both complaints reveal concerns about the impact that this fossil find has on the evolutionary explanation for life’s beginning. The hope is that by forcing the fossils to appear much later in Earth’s history, scientists can explain the metabolic complexity of the organisms that produced the hematite deposits by giving evolutionary processes more time. Yet there is no reason to dispute the dates for the rock formations in northern Canada, and the case for the biogenicity of the fossils is strong.

Some dismiss the bioauthenticity of the microfossils because it would require life to originate under hostile conditions, caused by the late heavy bombardment. These hostile conditions would have frustrated the origin-of-life process, potentially sterilizing Earth, making it difficult to imagine how life could have emerged, let alone diversified, at 3.77 billion years ago—at least from an evolutionary vantage point. If these fossils aren’t authentic, then scientists don’t have to confront the counterintuitive fact that life appeared under hostile conditions.

It seems to me that these scientists are dangerously close to evaluating the validity of the 3.77-billion-year-old microfossils based on how well they fit into the evolutionary paradigm, instead of evaluating evolutionary explanations for the origin of life based on the fossil evidence—a complete reversal of the way that the scientific method is supposed to work.

Nevertheless, a quick read between the lines reveals just how awkwardly this fossil find fits within the evolutionary paradigm.

Implications for Creation Models

Though the discovery of 3.77-billion-year-old microfossils confounds evolutionary origin-of-life models, it affirms RTB’s origin-of-life model. As described in Origins of Life, two key predictions of this model include (1) life appearing on Earth soon after the planet’s formation and (2) first life possessing intrinsic complexity. And these predictions are satisfied by this latest advance.

The writing is on the wall: the case for a Creator’s role in the origin of life is becoming more and more evident.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Matthew S. Dodd et al., Evidence for Early Life in Earth’s Oldest Hydrothermal Vent Precipitates,”Nature 543 (March 2017): 60–64, doi:10.1038/nature21377.
  2. Sarah Kaplan, “Newfound 3.77-Billion-Year-Old Fossils Could Be Earliest Evidence of Life on Earth,” Washington Post, March 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/03/01/newfound-3-77-billion-year-old-fossils-could-be-earliest-evidence-of-life-on-earth.
  3. Allen P. Nutman et al., “Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700-Million-Year-Old Microbial Structures,” Nature 537 (September 2016): 535–38, doi:10.1038/nature19355.
  4. Kaplan, “Newfound 3.77-Billion-Year-Old Fossils.”
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/03/29/what-does-the-discovery-of-earth-s-oldest-fossils-mean-for-evolutionary-models