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

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