75-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Fossil Yields DNA?

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Paleontologists Debate Whether New Research Found Signs of DNA in Dinosaur Fossil

by Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com

About 75 million years ago, a nest of plant-eating dinosaurs called Hypacrosaurus stebingeri died in what’s now Montana. Their fossils were found in the 1980s, and now an international team of scientists has presented evidence that the old bones contain traces of genetic material.

The paper published in National Science Review takes a close look at skull shards that would have been made of soft cartilage, instead of bone, in the young dinosaurs. The discovery is small in size, but hugely controversial among paleontologists: what appears to be microscopic cells, the building blocks of complex life, with dark clumps in the middle. A zoomed-in look at one possible cell’s dark spot reveals what the researchers suspect is genetic material.

Study author Alida Bailleul, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, first found the microscopic orbs in 2010 while a student at the Museum of the Rockies, and quickly recognized their resemblance to cells. “I freaked out a little bit—moving away from the microscope, thinking, moving back to the microscope,” she tells Michael Greshko at National Geographic. “I was like, Oh my god, that can’t be, there’s nothing else they can be!”

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