About Us

Museum scientists discover 34-million-year-old cuttlefish chitin

Cuttlebone and thin sectionChitin, like cellulose in plants and collagen in vertebrates, is a bio-molecule that provides strength and flexibility to most invertebrates. In a recent paper published in Plos One, Museum researchers Trish Weaver and Chris Tacker, along with their co-authors, describe organics consistent with beta chitin from a 34-million-year-old cuttlefish cuttlebone. Though not the oldest chitin signature obtained from fossils, their research represents the first chitin ever detected from an ancient marine mollusk.

Because chitin is a protein-linked structural sugar, it’s generally considered unlikely to survive 34 million years in a marine environment. In this paper, the authors hypothesized that chitin might be present within these ancient cuttlebones and then described various high-tech methods they used to prove its existence. A donation of chitin antibodies from colleagues at the University of Ulm, Germany, allowed the group to conduct immunohistochemistry (IHC) at NC State University. The study also used Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in Stockholm, Sweden; Fourier Transform Infra-red (FTIR) at NCSM; and  Hyperprobe at Fayetteville State. Weaver and her team explain exactly how they determined that organics consistent with chitin were still present and how these organics may have partially decayed. “It took seven people from six different institutions working in four different labs to pull this one off,” says Weaver. “It was truly an international collaboration, done on a shoestring budget. But it was well worth the effort.” Check for the full article at www.plos.org.

Caption:  A) Thirty-four-million-year-old cuttlebone that had the preserved chitin. C) Thin section through the cuttlebone. Credit: Trish Weaver

Publish Date: 
Tuesday, November 29, 2011