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    C. R. Palevol 7 (2008) 159184

    Available online at www.sciencedirect.com

    General paleontology (taphonomy and fossilisation)

    Microscopic, chemical and molecular methods for examiningfossil preservation

    Mary Higby Schweitzer a,, Recep Avci b, Timothy Collier c, Mark B. Goodwin da Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University and

    North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh, NC, USAb Department of Physics and ICAL facility, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, USA

    c Department of Chemistry, North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC, USAd University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley CA, USA

    Received 22 February 2008; accepted after revision 28 February 2008Available online 28 April 2008

    Written on invitation of the Editorial Board


    Advances in technology over the past two decades have resulted in unprecedented access to data from biological specimens. Theseata have expanded our understanding of physical characteristics, physiological, cellular and subcellular processes, and evolutionaryelationships at the molecular level and beyond. Paleontological and archaeological sciences have recently begun to apply theseechnologies to fossil and subfossil representatives of extinct organisms. Data derived from multidisciplinary, non-traditionalechniques can be difficult to decipher, and without a basic understanding of the type of information provided by these methods, theirsefulness for fossil studies may be overlooked. This review describes some of these powerful new analytical tools, the data that maye accessible through their use, advantages and limitations, and how they can be applied to fossil material to elucidate characteristicsf extinct organisms and their paleoecological environments. To cite this article: M.H. Schweitzer et al., C. R. Palevol 7 (2008).

    2008 Acadmie des sciences. Published by Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.


    Mthodes dtudes microscopiques, chimiques et molculaires pour lexamen de la conservation des fossiles. Des avan-es technologiques intervenues au cours des deux dernires dcades ont permis daccder des donnes sans prcdent sur deschantillons biologiques. Ces donnes ont largi notre comprhension des caractristiques physiques, des processus physiologiquesellulaires et subcellulaires, ainsi que des relations volutives au niveau de la molcule et au-del. Les sciences palontologiquest archologiques se sont rcemment orientes vers lapplication de ces technologies des reprsentants fossiles ou subfossilesorganismes disparus. Les bnfices de ces techniques, qui sont du domaine de multiples disciplines, sont difficiles dchiffrer et,

    ans une connaissance de base du type dinformation fourni par ces mthodes, leur utilit pour ltude des fossiles peut ne pas treien mesure. Cet article dcrit certains de ces nouveaux outils analytiques puissants, les donnes quils permettent dobtenir, leurs

    s au m

    vantages et leurs limites, et comment ils peuvent tre appliqu

    isparus et leurs environnements palocologiques. Pour citer cet ar

    2008 Acadmie des sciences. Published by Elsevier Masson SAS.

    eywords: Molecular preservation; Diagenesis; Fossil; Ancient DNA; Ancie

    ots cls : Conservation de molcules ; Diagense ; Fossile ; ADN ancien ;

    Corresponding author.E-mail address: schweitzer@ncsu.edu (M.H. Schweitzer).

    631-0683/$ see front matter 2008 Acadmie des sciences. Published bydoi:10.1016/j.crpv.2008.02.005

    atriel fossile pour lucider les caractristiques dorganismes

    ticle : M.H. Schweitzer et al., C. R. Palevol 7 (2008).All rights reserved.

    nt protein; Dinosaur; Mass spectrometry

    Dinosaure ; Spectromtrie de masse

    Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.


  • C. R. Pa

    160 M.H. Schweitzer et al. /

    1. Introduction

    The geological record holds the only evidence of lifethat once existed but is now extinct. This record mayconsist of fossilized remnants of microbial life (e.g.,[25,26,128,155,156,171]), chemical signals such as iso-tope shifts [11,19,44,104,106], tracks and trails made byboth invertebrates [31] and vertebrates [56,92] and phy-sical remnants of eukaryotic organisms, both from plants(e.g., [98]) and from animals (e.g., [118]). Extinct ver-tebrates, the focus of this paper, are best represented inthe geological record by mineralized remains of skeletalelements, although in rare instances soft tissues may bepreserved [1,24,32,33,80,9496,130,137,138,170,174].In cases of exceptional preservation, fragment moleculesmay be retained in mineralized matrices of vertebrateremains [2,3,39,40,101,132135]. Therefore, a combi-nation of morphological and chemical or molecular datarecovered from fossils have the potential to contribute toa greater understanding of both extinct organisms andevolutionary and/or geological processes acting uponthem.

    The recovery of DNA sequences from fossil tissueshas the greatest potential for elucidating evolutionaryrelationships, and hence, has been the focus of manymolecular efforts with fossils and subfossil material.But it has been hypothesized that DNA analyses areuseless for extremely ancient specimens (i.e. greaterthan 1 Ma; [71,91,172]). Additionally, ancient DNAstudies are subject to contamination and artifact (e.g.,[64,68,108,114]). Because of contamination issues andextremely low preservation potential, recovery of DNAfrom very old specimens is fraught with controversy([108,114] and references therein, [64]). However, signi-ficant chemical and/or molecular information may beretrievable from fossil material from sources other thanDNA.

    Analytical techniques that are both informative andsensitive can be applied to fossil tissues to provideindependent tests of morphologically based phyloge-nies and evolutionary histories, as well as insight intophysiologies, paleoecology and habitats, and chemicalenvironments to which the fossil has been exposed. Thus,analytical approaches to fossil specimens contribute toour understanding of the evolution of life on this planet.

    It is highly unlikely that a fossil will preserveDNA without also preserving evidence of other orga-nic components such as proteins [116]. Because of

    the controversies surround recovery of ancient DNA,authenticity should be independently supported by theidentification of other remnants, and more durable mole-cules. For example, supporting evidence for ancient

    levol 7 (2008) 159184

    DNA may include enzymatic degradation of DNA fromtissue extracts, positive anti-DNA antibody binding,immunohistochemical localization of DNA to structuressuch as osteocyte lacunae within bone tissues, or identi-fication of other biomolecular fragments that are knownto be resistant to degradation. It has been hypothesizedthat one way to do this is to tie DNA degradation tothe degree of racemization of amino acids [9,115,116].However, the conditions that both preserve and degradeproteins may be different than those involved in the pre-servation of DNA. Indeed, protein fragments have beenidentified in tissues where no endogenous DNA can beamplified [115]. Therefore, this relationship needs to beevaluated further.

    The methods described in this paper not only pro-vide means of independently verifying the authenticityof ancient DNA (aDNA) sequences, but may also providevaluable information not obtainable from DNA analysesalone, and may be effective in retrieving molecular infor-mation from fossils that do not preserve DNA. Becausemethods for aDNA analyses have been addressed indepth elsewhere (e.g., [108,172] and references therein;see also papers by Bollongino, Geigl and Hofreiter inthe present issue), we do not address these here, exceptto mention that some of the methods we describe are asapplicable to DNA as to other molecular remains. Thispaper reviews complementary and supportive methodsfor molecular and chemical analyses of fossils.

    This is not meant to be a complete description of allmethods available for the study of fossil tissues. Thereare many techniques and combinations of techniquesthat can be applied to analyses of fossil material that arenot considered in this discussion. Likewise, comparisonof cladistic methodologies and tree building algorithmsbased upon sequence data are beyond the scope of thispaper.

    2. Fossilization

    Scientists have been studying fossilized remains forcenturies, but processes acting to preserve these remainsare still unresolved. Generally, it is hypothesized thatwhen organic remains are buried, minerals in overlyingsediments are solubilized and then redeposited in porespaces within the fossil as the saturated water movesthrough them (e.g., [142]), while at the same time remo-ving any endogenous organic constituents.

    With new technologies developed over the last few

    decades, it is recognized that fossilization may actuallyoccur through multiple means (e.g., [23,24,127,171]),and regions of a single bone can vary greatly in pre-servation [59,67]. Some regions may be only minimally

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    M.H. Schweitzer et al. /

    ltered, while others, separated by only millimeters, mayhow more extreme diagenetic alteration. The degree tohich a fossil has been altered through diagenesis is

    inked to molecular preservation, and as such, histolo-ical index (microscopic integrity) is viewed as a proxyor possible molecular preservation [67]. The less alte-ation that has occurred at the gross, microscopic andlemental levels from the living state, the more likely it ishat fragments of original biomolecules may be retained63,66].

    . Molecular preservation


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