Here's the entire article I referenced complete with the "cadaver" stink.
Originally published in Discover, April 2006
EVER SINCE MARY HIGBY SCHWEITZER peeked inside the fractured thighbone of a Tyrannosaurus rex, the introverted scientist's life hasn't been the same. Neither has the field of paleontology.
Two years ago, Schweitzer gazed through a microscope in her laboratory at North Carolina State University and saw lifelike tissue that had no business inhabiting a fossilized dinosaur skeleton: fibrous matrix, stretchy like a wet scab on human skin; what appeared to be supple bone cells, their three-dimensional shapes intact; and translucent blood vessels that looked as if they could have come straight from an ostrich at the zoo.
By all the rules of paleontology, such traces of life should have long since drained from the bones. It's a matter of faith among scientists that soft tissue can survive at most for a few tens of thousands of years, not the 65 million since T. rex walked what's now the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. But Schweitzer tends to ignore such dogma. She just looks and wonders, pokes and prods, following her scientific curiosity. That has allowed her to see things other paleontologists have missed-and potentially to shatter fundamental assumptions about how much we can learn from the past. If biological tissue can last through the fossilization process, it could open a window through time, showing not just how extinct animals evolved but how they lived each day. "Fossils have richer stories to tell-about the lub-dub of dinosaur life-than we have been willing to listen to," says Robert T. Bakker, curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "This is one spectacular proof of that." ...
Rhetoric like this has put Schweitzer at the center of a raging cultural controversy, because she is not just a pioneering paleontologist but also an evangelical Christian. That fact alone has prompted some prominent paleontologists to be even more skeptical about her scientific research. Some creationists have questioned her work from the other direction, pressing her to refute Darwinian evolution. But in her religious life, Schweitzer is no more of an ideologue than she is in her scientific career. In both realms, she operates with a simple but powerful consistency: The best way to understand the glory of the world is to open your eyes and take an honest look at what is out there.
Reticent by nature, Schweitzer rarely grants interviews and shies away from making grand pronouncements about her scientific research or her religious faith. Instead of news stories about her stunning findings, she has adorned her office wall with a verse from the book of Jeremiah: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
SCHWEITZER'S UNCONVENTIONAL VIEW of the fossilized past is rooted in her enduring sense of wonder. When she was 5, her older brother gave her a copy of Oliver Butterworth's The Enormous Egg, a fantasy that plays off the then-controversial notion of a close kinship between dinosaurs and birds. She became a dinosaur buff, but as so often happens, with adulthood her interests drifted in other directions. She spent summers selling snow cones and fireworks. She worked with deaf children. She earned an undergraduate degree in communicative disorders and a certificate in secondary education.
In 1989, while dividing her time between substitute teaching and her three children, Schweitzer steered back toward her childhood fascination with dinosaurs. She approached Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur scientist, and asked if she could audit his vertebrate paleontology course at Montana State University. He appreciated her refreshingly nontraditional mind. "She really wasn't much of a scientist-which is good," says Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. "Scientists all get to thinking alike, and it's good to bring people in from different disciplines. They ask questions very differently." ...
Schweitzer's career began just as paleontologists started framing their own questions in more multidimensional ways. Until the 1980s, researchers were more likely to be trained in earth science than in biology. They often treated fossils as geologic specimens-mineral structures whose main value lay in showing the skeletal shapes of prehistoric animals. A younger generation of paleontologists, in contrast, has focused on reconstructing intimate details like growth rates and behaviors using modern techniques normally associated with the study of living organisms. "It's taking dinosaurs from being curious fossils to being biological entities," says Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
This shifting perspective clicked with Schweitzer's intuitions that dinosaur remains were more than chunks of stone. Once, when she was working with a T. rex skeleton harvested from Hell Creek, she noticed that the fossil exuded a distinctly organic odor. "It smelled just like one of the cadavers we had in the lab who had been treated with chemotherapy before he died," she says. Given the conventional wisdom that such fossils were made up entirely of minerals, Schweitzer was anxious when mentioning this to Horner. "But he said, 'Oh, yeah, all Hell Creek bones smell,'" she says. To most old-line paleontologists, the smell of death didn't even register. To Schweitzer, it meant that traces of life might still cling to those bones.
She had already seen signs of exceptional preservation in the early 1990s, while she was studying the technical aspects of adhering fossil slices to microscope slides. One day a collaborator brought a T. rex slide to a conference and showed it to a pathologist, who examined it under a microscope. "The guy looked at it and said, 'Do you realize you've got red blood cells in that bone?' " Schweitzer remembers. "My colleague brought it back and showed me, and I just got goose bumps, because everyone knows these things don't last for 65 million years."
When Schweitzer showed Horner the slide, she recalls, "Jack said, 'Prove to me they're not red blood cells.' That was what I got my Ph.D. doing." She first ruled out contaminants and mineral structures. Then she analyzed the putative cells using a half-dozen techniques involving chemical analysis and immunology. In one test, a colleague injected rats with the dinosaur fossil extract; the rodents produced antibodies that responded to turkey and rabbit hemoglobins. All the data supported the conclusion that the T. rex fossil contained fragments of hemoglobin molecules. "The most likely source of these proteins is the once-living cells of the dinosaur," she wrote in a 1997 paper.
That article, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sparked a small flurry of headlines. Horner and others regarded Schweitzer's research as carefully performed and credible. Nonetheless, says Horner, "most people were very skeptical. Frequently in our field people come up with new ideas, and opponents say, 'I just don't believe it.' She was having a hard time publishing in journals."
Schweitzer was also stymied by her unconventional fusion of paleontology and molecular biology. "Those are two disciplines we don't usually see in the same sentence," says Lawrence Witmer, an Ohio University anatomy professor. Techniques that were routine in one discipline seemed odd when applied to the other. "If she was working with modern animals, there wouldn't be anything special about what she was doing," says Horner. But molecular paleontology was unheard-of. "It is a wide-open field that she invented," Horner says.
Soldiering on with minimal funding, Schweitzer continued to hunt for the retention of living tissue longer than scientific theory might predict. When a group of fossil hunters found a cluster of preserved bird eggs in a city dump in Neuquén, Argentina, they originally believed the shells contained nothing but sand. Schweitzer placed the remains under scanning electron and atomic force microscopes and concluded that the 70-million-year-old eggs still held embryos containing intact collagen.
For eight years, Schweitzer's career bobbed along with innovative but not attention-grabbing projects. Then she found that stretchy stuff inside a T. rex femur. ...
Her lab was still stacked with unpacked cartons when she opened the cardboard box from the T. rex dig and pulled out the biggest fragment. Looking at it with the eyes of a biologist, she immediately saw it was more than a fossil. Time and history began to unwind. "Oh, my gosh," she said to her laboratory assistant, Jennifer Wittmeyer. "It's a girl. And it's pregnant."
What Schweitzer saw was medullary bone, a type of tissue that grows inside the long bones of female birds. Medullary bone is produced during ovulation as a way of storing the calcium needed for egg production; then it disappears. "I looked at it under the dissecting scope," Schweitzer says. "There was nothing else it could be." The medullary bone even contained gaps and mazelike fiber patterns resembling those of modern birds. ....
.... "When you wiggled it, it kind of floated in the breeze."
Schweitzer and Wittmeyer pondered the meaning of the stretchy sample, feeling mystified and ecstatic. The remains seemed like soft tissue-specifically matrix, the organic part of bone, which consists primarily of collagen. Yet this seemed impossible, according to the prevailing understanding. "Everyone knows how soft tissues degrade," Schweitzer says. "If you take a blood sample and you stick it on a shelf, you have nothing recognizable in about a week. So why would there be anything left in dinosaurs?"
Next Schweitzer examined a piece of the dinosaur's cortical bone. "We stuck the bone in the same kind of solution," she says. "The bone mineral dissolved away, and it left these transparent blood vessels. I took one look, and I just said: 'Uh-uh. This isn't happening. This is just not happening.' " She started applying the same treatment to bone fragments from another dinosaur that she had acquired for her dissertation. "Sure enough," she says, "vessels all over the place."
Less than a month later, while Schweitzer was still collecting data on the soft tissue, came a third score. Wittmeyer walked into the lab looking anxious. "I think maybe some of our stuff's gotten contaminated, because I see these things floating around, and they look like bugs," she said. Worried that she would lose her dinosaur blood vessels before she could publish an article about them, Schweitzer rushed to rescue the sample. What she found startled her. Through the microscope she could see what looked like perfectly formed osteocytes, the cells inside bone.
The past was roaring to life.
SCHWEITZER PUBLISHED HER FINDINGS in reverse order-soft tissue first, then the medullary bone-in the journal Science last year. The ensuing avalanche of publicity, sometimes couched in breathless hyperbole ("Jurassic Park-type find could be first step in re-creating T. rex," huffed a story in the Ottawa Citizen), made her squeamish. She tried to ignore the media, but to no avail. Since the articles appeared, she has become one of the world's best-known paleontologists. Her findings challenge such basic assumptions about animal preservation that her colleagues have put her research-and the woman herself-under the microscope.
If soft tissue can last 65 million years, Horner says, "there may be a lot of things out there that we've missed because of our assumption of how preservation works." James Farlow, a paleontologist at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, adds, "If you can preserve soft tissue under these circumstances, all bets are off."
Schweitzer's work opens the possibility of comparing dinosaur tissue with the tissue of living animals. It could also allow scientists to reconstruct ancient biology, such as prehistoric disease. If paleontologists encounter vascular channels in dinosaur fossils, they might also find nematodes, or roundworms, that lived off the animals' internal organs. "I'll bet you a six-pack of Coors that pretty soon people will be discovering Cretaceous parasites inside Cretaceous bones," says Bakker. "The possibility of looking into epidemiology and pathology is pretty cool."
On the flip side, Jeffrey Bada, an organic geochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, cannot imagine soft tissue surviving millions of years. He says the cellular material Schweitzer found must be contamination from outside sources. Even if the T. rex had died in a colder, drier climate than Hell Creek, environmental radiation would have degraded its body, Bada says: "Bones absorb uranium and thorium like crazy. You've got an internal dose that will wipe out biomolecules." ...
Schweitzer agrees. "I am a slam-dunk scientist," she says. "I would have much rather held the paper back until we had reams and reams of data." But without publishing a journal article, she says, she could never have hoped for funding."Without the papers in Science, I didn't stand a chance," she says. "That's the saddest part about doing science in America: You are totally driven by what gets you funding." Since publishing, Schweitzer has conducted many of the analyses Poinar suggests, with initially promising results.
For a scientist, the ultimate test is having independent researchers replicate your results. So far, there hasn't been a mad rush to do so-few have expertise in both molecular biology and paleontology, not to mention the passion needed to carry out such work. But there is activity. Patrick Orr at University College Dublin is bringing together geologists and organic geochemists to look for soft tissue in a 10-million-year-old frog fossil. Paleontologists at the University of Chicago are setting up a laboratory to look for similar tissue in more T. rex remains; Horner is starting to decalcify other dinosaur bones. In the dinosaur lab at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, Bakker has taken some peeks. "I haven't found anything yet," he says, "but wouldn't be a bit surprised if soon somebody comes up with more sticky, bouncy stuff." ...
Truth is, Schweitzer hasn't even bothered to look for DNA. She has simply hunkered down to work in her characteristic way: keeping her eyes and her attitude wide open. "So many things are coming together that suggest preservation is far better than we've ever given it credit for," she says. "I think it's stupid to say, 'You're never going to get DNA out of dinosaur bone, you're never going to get proteins out of dinosaur bone, you're never going to do this, you're never going to do that.' As a scientist, I don't think you should ever use the word never."