Much of my current work involves understanding how soft tissues preserve in exceptional fossils and what biomolecules persist deep into the geologic record. Doing so will lead to better interpretations of fossil data and a better understanding of the biology of extinct organisms. My work involves experimental taphonomy utilizing decay and maturation experiments as well as modern analytical techniques on fossils themselves. These projects are highly collaborative in nature given their span of paleontology, geology, biology, and chemistry.
My first foray into this subject was during my masters thesis. This thesis is available through my Researchgate page. The thesis was also presented at the 2016 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. The slides from the talk are also available through Researchgate. I also presented the thesis in a poster at the 2015 annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association (again available through Researchgate). The first paper to come from my masters thesis, showing through decay and maturation experiments common to experimental taphonomy that keratin is not likely to preserve in fossils of appreciable age or burial depth, was published in Palaeontology:
Saitta, E. T., Rogers, C., Brooker, R. A., Abbott, G. D., Kumar, S., O’Reilly, S. S., Donohoe, P., Dutta, S., Summons, R.E., & Vinther, J. (2017). Low fossilization potential of keratin protein revealed by experimental taphonomy. Palaeontology, 60(4), 547-556.
Recent studies have suggested the presence of keratin in fossils dating back to the Mesozoic. However, ultrastructural studies revealing exposed melanosomes in many fossil keratinous tissues suggest that keratin should rarely, if ever, be preserved. In this study, keratin’s stability through diagenesis was tested using microbial decay and maturation experiments on various keratinous structures. The residues were analysed using pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and compared to unpublished feather and hair fossils and published fresh and fossil melanin from squid ink. Results show that highly matured feathers (200–250°C/250 bars/24 h) become a volatile-rich, thick fluid with semi-distinct pyrolysis compounds from those observed in less degraded keratins (i.e. fresh, decayed, moderately matured, and decayed and moderately matured) suggesting hydrolysis of peptide bonds and potential degradation of free amino acids. Neither melanization nor keratin (secondary) structure (e.g. ⍺- vs β-keratin) produced different pyrograms; melanin pyrolysates are largely a subset of those from proteins, and proteins have characteristic pyrolysates. Analyses of fossil fur and feather found a lack of amides, succinimide and piperazines (present even in highly matured keratin) and showed pyrolysis compounds more similar to fossil and fresh melanin than to non-matured or matured keratin. Although the highly matured fluid was not water soluble at room temperature, it readily dissolved at elevated temperatures easily attained during diagenesis, meaning it could leach away from the fossil. Future interpretations of fossils must consider that calcium phosphate and pigments are the only components of keratinous structures known to survive fossilization in mature sediments.
A second paper deriving from my masters thesis discusses the early taphonomic changes that might occur in keratinous structures and whether the resulting textures would ever be expected in the fossil record. It also challenges structures identified as dinosaur erythrocytes, suggesting that they are taphonomic artifacts of degraded organic material. This paper was published in Palaios and reported by Phys.org and the University of Bristol. It also formed the basis of an article I wrote for The Conversation.
Saitta, E. T., Rogers, C. S., Brooker, R. A., & Vinther, J. (2017). Experimental taphonomy of keratin: a structural analysis of early taphonomic changes. Palaios, 32(10), 647-657.
The evolution of integumentary structures, particularly in relation to feathers in dinosaurs, has become an area of intense research. Our understanding of the molecular evolution of keratin protein is greatly restricted by the fact that such information is lost during diagenesis and cannot be derived from fossils. In this study, decay and maturation experiments are used to determine if different keratin types or integumentary structures show different patterns of degradation early in their taphonomic histories and if such simulations might advance our understanding of different fossilization pathways. Although different distortion patterns were observed in different filamentous structures during moderate maturation and ultrastructural textures unique to certain types of scales persisted in moderate maturation, neither of these have been observed in fossils. It remains uncertain whether these degradation patterns would ever occur in natural sediment matrix, where microbial and chemical decay happens well before significant diagenesis. It takes some time for remains to be buried, meaning that keratin may not be left for moderate maturation to produce such patterns. Higher, more realistic maturation conditions produce a thick, and water soluble fluid that lacks all morphological and ultrastructural details of the original keratin, suggesting that such textural or distortion patterns are unlikely to be preserved in fossils. Although different degradation patterns among keratinous structures are intriguing, it is unlikely that such information could be recorded in the fossil record. Calcium phosphates and pigments are the surviving components of integumentary structures. Thus, the results here are likely of more relation to the archaeological record than fossil record. Other noteworthy results of these experiments are that melanin may not be the leading factor in determining the rate of microbial decay in feathers but may reduce the rate of degradation from maturation, that the existence of rachis filamentous subunits similar to plumulaceous barbules is supported, and that previously reported dinosaur ‘erythrocytes’ may be taphonomic artifacts of degraded organic material.
I was coauthor of a paper providing an overview of the various processes involved in fossilization, highlighting how decay is far from the only factor to consider when studying fossil taphonomy or designing experiments. The paper was published in BioEssays.
Parry, L. A., Smithwick, F., Norden, K., Saitta, E. T., Lozano-Fernandez, J., Tanner, A., Bernard Caron, J., Edgecombe, G. D., Briggs, D. E. G., & Vinther, J. (2017). Soft-bodied fossils are not simply rotten carcasses—towards a holistic understanding of exceptional fossil preservation. BioEssays. doi: 10.1002/bies.201700167
Exceptionally preserved fossils are the product of complex interplays of biological and geological processes including burial, autolysis and microbial decay, authigenic mineralization, diagenesis, metamorphism, and finally weathering and exhumation. Determining which tissues are preserved and how biases affect their preservation pathways is important for interpreting fossils in phylogenetic, ecological, and evolutionary frameworks. Although laboratory decay experiments reveal important aspects of fossilization, applying the results directly to the interpretation of exceptionally preserved fossils may overlook the impact of other key processes that remove or preserve morphological information. Investigations of fossils preserving non-biomineralized tissues suggest that certain structures that are decay resistant (e.g., the notochord) are rarely preserved (even where carbonaceous components survive), and decay-prone structures (e.g., nervous systems) can fossilize, albeit rarely. As we review here, decay resistance is an imperfect indicator of fossilization potential, and a suite of biological and geological processes account for the features preserved in exceptional fossils.
I am currently working on several ongoing projects. One involves improved equipment and methods for maturation experiments using a large-scale, sediment-based approach with the goal of mimicking or modeling fossilization processes to create ‘synthetic fossils’ in the lab, in an analogous manner to the production of synthetic diamonds. Such a technique holds great potential for better understanding fossilization and testing a wide range of hypotheses for many years to come. The initial results have been presented in a pre-conference, informal series of talks prior to the 2016 annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association. I also presented this work during the Romer session of the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The method was mentioned by my collaborator, Tom Kaye, in the early part of a podcast interview with Palaeocast. The first paper from this project is under review.
I am also performing a series of chemical analyses on various fossils of keratinous structures to determine what components of these structures survive into the fossil record.
Similarly, I am using a variety of chemical analyses to understand the organics present in fossil dinosaur (i.e., Mesozoic) bone. This work involves samples that I aseptically excavated from Dinosaur Provincial Park in the summer of 2016. I wish to understand whether or not these organics are ancient, endogenous, and/or well-preserved. I presented a poster on this topic entitled “Life inside a dinosaur bone: a thriving microbiome” at the 2017 annual meeting of the Palaeontological Society.
In the process of running these analyses, I have also started to investigate the organics of fossil eggshells. Preliminary results were presented at the 2017 International Workshop on Konservat-Lagerstätten in Cork, Ireland.