Scientists ruin delicious sea bass to study why some organs don’t fossilize

Scientists ruin delicious sea bass to study why some organs don’t fossilize

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  • November 24, 2022
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Now, if every living thing were to die, it’s estimated that only about 1 percent would become fossils. Even fewer would have preserved soft tissue. These rare tissue fossils offer crucial clues to biology and evolution, but their formation remains mysterious. For example, why do scientists find fossilized intestines but never a fossilized liver?

Fossils form when minerals replace the body parts of organisms that die and become buried in sediments, such as B. the mixture of mud and seawater on the seabed. Paleontologists are particularly fond of the fossil-forming mineral calcium phosphate because it can preserve soft organs in minute detail—sometimes down to cell nuclei. This mineral only forms under certain acidic conditions, which is why scientists have hypothesized for decades that differences in the pH levels of decaying organs determine which organs survive.

To better understand how organs change after death, University of Birmingham paleontologist Thomas Clements took a trip to the fishmonger’s with a plan to ruin four delicious sea bass fish. His team inserted pH probes into the fish’s internal organs, then submerged the carcasses in artificial seawater and left them to rot.

For 70 days, the researchers watched the sea bass puff up, shed its flesh and disintegrate into piles of bones while the probes monitored the changing chemistry of the body parts. The results, recently published in Paleontology, show that the acidity of each organ reached the proper range for calcium phosphate crystallization within 24 hours, with these conditions persisting for up to five days. The team had expected to find stark differences between the organs, but instead the entire carcass rotted evenly into a relatively homogeneous soup of decay byproducts that was trapped by the skin for up to 20 days.

This surprising finding prompted the researchers to consider other factors that might support fossilization, such as the phosphorus levels in an organ’s tissues. “Muscles are full of phosphate,” says Clements. “If you already have the phosphate there, then it’s very likely [the organ] replaced by calcium phosphate.”

“It would be interesting to do this in [nonfish organisms] too,” says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee paleontologist Victoria McCoy, who was not involved in the study. She suggests that future work could monitor other aspects of the environment in decaying organs, such as B. Concentrations of different elements. Researchers could also study whether the physical structures of tissues affect mineral formation. “In many ways, that raises more questions than if they found organ-specific pH gradients,” says McCoy. “But that’s what makes it so cool.”

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