The people who investigate disease and death in dinosaurs
Michael Schubert | | Interview
At a Glance
- “Molecular paleontology” is the study of ancient biomolecules preserved in fossilized bone
- Practitioners of the unusual discipline use techniques familiar to modern pathologists and laboratory medicine professionals, but face additional challenges
- Certain conditions, such as terrestrial environments and rapid burial, improve the chances of soft tissue preservation
- Interdisciplinary research involving both modern medicine and paleobiology can yield great strides in molecular paleontology studies
What killed the dinosaurs? You may immediately think of an asteroid impact, a dramatic climate shift, or possibly an alien invasion – after all, the cause of their mass extinction is still somewhat open to scientific debate (although aliens have largely been ruled out). But what about the dinosaurs who died before the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event? Were all of their deaths dramatic predator-prey interactions? Did they suffer from cancer, arthritis, or even plain old age?
We’ve previously explored the unique careers of those who study the pathology of past peoples, whose patients may be hundreds or even thousands of years old (1)(2). But just as not all modern pathologists treat human patients, not all paleopathologists investigate the history of human disease. Some study much older – and, in most cases, much larger – patients: the “terrible lizards.”
But believe it or not, even the paleontologists and pathologists who study dinosaurs over 100 million years old use many of the same techniques on which modern laboratory medicine professionals rely. “Molecular paleontology” labs feature light and electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, immunohistochemistry platforms, synthetic peptides, and more. Practitioners of this discipline combine a paleontologist’s work in identifying and extracting fossil material with the laboratory medicine skills of analyzing the ancient biomolecules preserved in fossilized bone. It’s a science that works across interdisciplinary boundaries to yield great strides not only in paleontological studies, but also in the practice of modern molecular biology.
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