A role for iron and oxygen chemistry in preserving soft tissues, cells and molecules from deep time

Mary H. Schweitzer, Wenxia Zheng, Timothy P. Cleland, Mark B. Goodwin, Elizabeth Boatman, Elizabeth Theil, Matthew A. Marcus, Sirine C. Fakra

Abstract

The persistence of original soft tissues in Mesozoic fossil bone is not explained by current chemical degradation models. We identified iron particles (goethite-αFeO(OH)) associated with soft tissues recovered from two Mesozoic dinosaurs, using transmission electron microscopy, electron energy loss spectroscopy, micro-X-ray diffraction and Fe micro-X-ray absorption near-edge structure. Iron chelators increased fossil tissue immunoreactivity to multiple antibodies dramatically, suggesting a role for iron in both preserving and masking proteins in fossil tissues. Haemoglobin (HB) increased tissue stability more than 200-fold, from approximately 3 days to more than two years at room temperature (25°C) in an ostrich blood vessel model developed to test post-mortem ‘tissue fixation’ by cross-linking or peroxidation. HB-induced solution hypoxia coupled with iron chelation enhances preservation as follows: HB + O2 > HB − O2 > −O2 ≫ +O2. The well-known O2/haeme interactions in the chemistry of life, such as respiration and bioenergetics, are complemented by O2/haeme interactions in the preservation of fossil soft tissues.

  • Received October 21, 2013.
  • Accepted October 29, 2013.
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