Scientists have been able to identify the closest living relative to the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex that once caused fear while roaming the earth. And many people will be shocked to learn that the closest cousin to the T-Rex still on earth is the chicken.
If It Looks Like a T-Rex…
Many people have observed the anatomy of the chicken. They have speculated about the dinosaur-like qualities the bird seems to possess. But now, researchers have successfully sequenced proteins from the T-Rex and can discern the definite similarities to molecules shared by the T-Rex and the chicken.
The discovery is the first scientific evidence that today’s birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. In the process, the notion that proteins, DNA, and other organic molecules are destroyed when an organism becomes fossilized was dispelled. The door has also been opened to the possibility that dinosaur cloning may one day be as real as it was in Jurassic Park.
A Happy Group of Scientist
Mary Schweitzer is a paleontologist who works for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University. Schweitzer is the leader of a group of researchers who studied the fossil of a legbone from a T-Rex who lived 68 million years ago. The leg bone was first discovered in 2003.
Schweitzer and her colleagues were surprised to find that the leg bone still possessed a sufficient amount of the collagen fibers that once provided the bone with the structure and flexibility needed to properly function. In all, Schweitzer and the team members were able to sequence seven different proteins from the leg bone of the T-Rex. The team published the results of their findings in the Journal Science.
Angela Milner works at the National History Museum in London as the museum’s associate keeper of paleontology. Milner explains that the collagen makeup found in the leg bone of the T-Rex is strikingly similar to the collagen makeup that can be observed in modern-day chickens. Milner says it is satisfying to find concrete evidence of what many in her field have thought for so long — Modern-day chickens are direct descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs.
Identifying Protein Sequences
Professor Schweitzer was able to identify protein sequences in a wooly mammoth fossil in 2002. However, the mammoth that was the subject of that study was only 300,000 years old. The opportunity to compare a 68 million-year-old T-Rex fossil against living creatures is a complete game-changer.
Three of the seven sequences taken from the T-Rex were unique matches to the chicken. One of each of the T-Rex protein sequences were unique matches to the frog and newt.
John Asara works in Boston at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He explains the findings support the premise that birds are dinosaur descendants. Asara also explains that matches to modern-day animals like crocodiles and alligators might also be possible if there were protein sequences in the database to compare them to. Asara finished by saying chickens are the closest relatives to dinosaurs based on the databases that are presently available.
Montana State University’s Jack Horner says that the successful sequencing of molecules from the T-Rex may signal a new era for paleontology. Horner explains that researchers were only able to observe the size and shapes of the fossils found and compare them against each other until now. However, he did express that it is not a simple process to find enough well-preserved material to complete analysis like the one performed by Dr. Schweitzer’s team.
Making Good Use of Technology
Biologist Lewis Cantley of Harvard University was a member of the Schweitzer project. Cantley says the team he was a part of was able to push the technology available to them to the limit. Cantley excitedly explained that this new technology is still in an early infancy stage and will only improve with time. Cantley says that both software and machines are improving at a rapid pace. These developments will bring a lot of excitement to the field of paleontology in the coming years.
A Word of Caution
Dr. Milner took a moment to warn anyone who may have Jurassic Park fantasies running through their heads to slow down for a second. Milner explains that recovering a protein sequence from a T-Rex fossil does not equate to the ability to clone a dinosaur. Milner explains that DNA is needed to make a clone of an organism. He also explained that DNA is an unstable molecule that has never been taken from an organism that lived more 30,000 years ago.