The July issue of Wired magazine has a feature article on the controversy surrounding the work of NC State researcher Mary Schweitzer. She’s the paleontologist who in 2007, with colleagues, “announced in the journal Science that [they] had indeed uncovered seven preserved fragments of protein” in a sample of Tyrannosaurus rex femur. The story — “Origin of Species: How a T. Rex Femur Sparked a Scientific Smackdown” — is a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of scientific research and what happens when others reject your findings.
The discovery generated international headlines—”Study: Tyrannosaurus Rex Basically a Big Chicken” — as the first molecular confirmation of the long-theorized relationship between dinosaurs and birds. It was also the first-ever evidence that protein could survive even a million years, much less 68 million. The New York Times reported that the finding “opens the door for the first time to the exploration of molecular-level relationships of ancient, extinct animals.” Some news outlets couldn’t resist drawing parallels to a certain popular fictional tale. The research, suggested the UK Guardian, “also hints at the tantalizing prospect that scientists may one day be able to emulate Jurassic Park by cloning a dinosaur.”
Before long, however, a distinctly human subplot emerged. Within 16 months, three separate rebuttals appeared, two in Science itself. Many researchers were skeptical of the quality of Asara’s data and doubted that collagen could survive so long, even partially intact. “You’re talking about something a hundred times older than anything ever sequenced,” says Steven Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland. “If you have extraordinary results, they require extraordinary evidence.”
NC State wrote about Schweitzer in 2005.