The puzzle persists after all these years. On the one hand, biochemists perform decay rate studies that show biochemicals cannot last a million years in the best of conditions. On the other hand, paleontologists keep finding biochemicals in fossil bones deemed tens of millions of years old. A new report again attempts to explain how those short-lived biomaterials might have “lived” far beyond their expected shelf lives.
NC State Ph.D. student, Landon Anderson, published in the journal Earth Science Reviews some biochemical reactions that either do, did, or could occur inside a buried carcass on its way to becoming a fossil.1 The report conveys the idea that the two most popular proposed preservation mechanisms don’t compete, but instead complement one another to possibly help preserve tissues for eons.
One popular mechanism holds that iron atoms help cross-link biochemicals including proteins, making them larger, tougher molecules. The other holds that the same kinds of reactions that transform sugars and lipids into bread crust in an oven also occurred in some fossils. Neither model directly preserves original biochemistry. They instead transform it into biomaterials that would preserve merely the original shape, like formaldehyde does.
Anderson argues that the two models represent sets of chemical reactions that occur along a continuum. Iron could help cross-link biomolecules first, followed by the toast reactions, and other reactions even later. Now with twin arguments activated, has this longstanding time dilemma finally found resolution?
One shortcoming of this chemical wedding is that neither the iron hypothesis nor the toast model came close to explaining the actual data on their own. We predict this marriage will resonate with those in need of a device to rescue millions of years from biochemistry despite its scientific indefensibility. What makes it indefensible?
First, neither model explained the relevant results on its own. Combining them is like pouring water into one leaky bucket and trying to catch the leaks with a second leaky bucket.
The iron model already suffers from unanswered questions. Where would sufficient iron come from? How would that iron rub against collagen embedded in bone minerals or the outer surfaces of the intact blood vessels? Why would that iron catalyze far more protein cross-links than chemical breakups in fossils when it does the opposite in experiments?2
The toast model also carries baggage that should concern careful scientists. For example, if this set of reactions converted original proteins into “advanced end products” (i.e., “toast”), then what has that to do with the actual, unconverted proteins found in fossils?3
Since neither of these models has been empirically tested, each amounts to so much speculation. The same logic applies this attempt to unify the two models.
Indeed, the author himself may have unwittingly admitted as much. This study devotes pages to various cross-linking chemistries, only to admit that cross-linking should be the exception to the rule of destructive chemistry. Anderson wrote, “Similarly, the chemical reactions presented within this chemical framework, while potentially preservative of soft tissue morphology, are predicted to gradually degrade soft tissue constituent biomolecules over time.”
How, then, could it preserve that which it degrades?
In his answer to this core question, Anderson suggests that the cross-linked biomaterial might shield nearby traces of not-yet crosslinked biomolecules. He wrote, “Small segments of the collagen peptides that avoided transformation via in-situ hybridization [i.e., cross-linking] (possibly within protected regions of the collagen molecule) may explain reported collagen sequences from Pliocene and Mesozoic specimens.” May…or may not. In reality, it does not.
Given the author’s broader concept that these sets of reactions occur relentlessly, the more time underground, the more likely the original biochemistry would be long gone. Plus, given the already measured decay rates of these biochemicals, which last no longer than a million or so years under ideal conditions,4 we are left with no scientific reason why measured destructive chemistry could possibly have been suspended indefinitely.5
Until someone actually tests the iron model, toast model, or both models together using artificial decay experiments to measure decay kinetics, these models’ power to explain the original (i.e., non-crosslinked and non-toasted) soft tissues that linger in fossils remains hypothetical at best and misleading at worst. Over 100 publications now describe biochemical signatures and even protein sequences of biomolecules. These include type I collagen, osteocalcin, ovalbumin, laminin, hemoglobin, even chromosomes, plus intact whole tissues like bone matrix, chitinous cuticles, and blood vessels. Despite what looks like another failed attempt to rescue deep time, these original biochemicals still look as fresh as ever after.6
- Anderson, L.A. 2023. A chemical framework for the preservation of fossil vertebrate cells and soft tissues. Earth Science Reviews. 240: 104367.
- Anderson, K. Dinosaur Tissue: A Biochemical Challenge to the Evolutionary Timescale. Answers in Depth. Posted on answersingenesis.org October 20, 2016, accessed May 4, 2023.
- Thomas, B., S. Taylor, and K. Anderson. Some strengths and weaknesses of the polymer shield explanation for soft tissue fossils. Journal of Creation. 33(2): 9-12.
- Buckley, M. and M. J. Collins. 2011. Collagen survival and its use for species identification in Holocene-lower Pleistocene bone fragments from British archaeological and paleontological sites. Antiqua. 1 (1): e1.
- Anderson might disagree with this. He wrote, “Tissues preserved via such a mechanism [desiccation (drying out)] are known to persist indefinitely…” This is not known at all. He cites two studies in support of this bizarre statement. In one study, authors found no change in moisture content in mummified human bodies measured over three months. (See Lennartz, A. M. D., Hamilton, and R. Weaver. Moisture Content in Decomposing, Desiccated, and Mummified Human Tissue. Forensic Anthropology. 3(1): 1-16.) Is it responsible science to conclude from a three month-long study that a naturally mummified animal (fossil) would therefore have avoided the laws of chemistry for tens of millions of years? In the real world, moisture migrates throughout the upper earth’s crust, further highlighting the straw-grasping nature of this statement.
- Thomas, B. and S. Taylor. 2019. Proteomes of the past: the pursuit of proteins in paleontology. Expert Review of Proteomics. 16 (11-12): 881-895.
Dr. Brian Thomas is Research Scientist at the Institute for Creation Research and earned his Ph.D. in paleobiochemistry from the University of Liverpool.