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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

Remnants of Ancient Life The New Science of Old Fossils

By: Dale E Greenwalt(Author)
278 pages, 28 b/w photos and b/w illustrations, 1 table
Surveying fascinating research on what ancient biomolecules can tell us about extinct lifeforms, Remnants of Ancient Life puts a fresh gloss on the topic of palaeontology.
Remnants of Ancient Life
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  • Remnants of Ancient Life ISBN: 9780691221144 Hardback Mar 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £21.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

We used to think of fossils as being composed of nothing but rock and minerals, all molecular traces of life having vanished long ago. We were wrong. Remnants of Ancient Life reveals how the new science of ancient biomolecules – pigments, proteins, and DNA that once functioned in living organisms tens of millions of years ago – is opening a new window onto the evolution of life on Earth.

Paleobiologists are now uncovering these ancient remnants in the fossil record with increasing frequency, shedding vital new light on long-extinct creatures and the lost world they inhabited. Dale Greenwalt is your guide to these astonishing breakthroughs. He explains how ancient biomolecules hold the secrets to how mammoths dealt with the bitter cold, what colours dinosaurs exhibited in mating displays, how ancient viruses evolved to become more dangerous, and much more. Each chapter discusses different types of biomolecules and the insights they provide about the physiology, behaviour, and evolution of extinct organisms, many of which existed long before the age of dinosaurs.

A marvellous adventure of discovery, Remnants of Ancient Life offers an unparalleled look at an emerging science that is transforming our picture of the remote past. You will never think of fossils in the same way again.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Puts a completely fresh gloss on the topic of palaeontology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 9 Oct 2023 Written for Hardback

    Remnants of Ancient Life discusses what we can learn about extinct life forms from traces of molecules, such as DNA, proteins, pigments, and metals. This book is a good example of the kind of whistlestop tour normally written by science journalists: delve into a topic, read tons of academic papers, serve up interesting results in a digestible form for your reader, and profile some of the scientists involved. The difference is that Greenwalt is an insider, working as the curator of the fossil insect collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. It was actually the background research he did for a book chapter on the fossil record of blood that made him decide to write a popular book on ancient biomolecules.

    When biomolecules are found in rock outside of a fossil, they are called biomarkers. As Greenwalt explains, these can still be informative but palaeontologists prefer to find them preserved in situ, i.e. inside a fossil in its anatomical context. That way you can try to link molecule and function. Greenwalt has organised his chapters thematically, discussing ancient pigments, biometals, proteins, DNA, and plant biomolecules. Let me whet your appetite with some examples of the fascinating science he serves up.

    Ancient pigments made a big splash in 2008 when palaeontologist Jakob Vinther realised that what we thought were fossil bacteria were actually packets of the pigment melanin (melanosomes). This has given us new insights into the colour of dinosaur integument and feathers. Sometimes you do not even need the pigment. One 100 million-year-old snakeskin fossil was so well-preserved that the minerals had replicated microscopic details including pigment storage organs. Since their shape and size are pigment-specific and the fossil organs closely resembled those of living snakes, the researchers could make an educated guess about this ancient snake's colour. Better still, ancient biomolecules do not even need to contain genetic information to draw up family trees. One team of researchers noticed how pigments isolated from closely related fossil echinoderms were more similar than those of distantly related ones. Using this finding, they drew up a family tree based on pigments, finding that it agreed with one of several proposed family trees based on morphological data.

    Ancient DNA (aDNA) is the celebrity of ancient biomolecules; this is where Jones's book Ancient DNA shines. Greenwalt does a decent enough job here describing the problem of "the misuse of PCR" (p. 151) that was amplifying contaminating DNA in the early days of research, leading to unlikely claims. But he also adds technical details that Jones, as a historian, did not touch on: how PCR was improved when combined with the DNA polymerase of a heat-tolerant bacterium, or which bones are good sources of aDNA. When Greenwalt turns to human aDNA, he concedes that there is already such good coverage of the subject of human ancestry as revealed by aDNA from the likes of Pääbo and Reich, that he will not retread that territory. Instead, he discusses studies that have revealed more about human physiology and behaviour using aDNA.

    However, do not underestimate ancient proteins! Greenwalt's explanation as to why these are sometimes more informative than aDNA is very revealing. See, aDNA only tells you that an organism could make certain proteins, not what was actually being expressed at the time of death. Ancient proteins tell that story. Though they preserve better than aDNA, the downside is that different proteins are expressed in different parts of the body. Whereas each cell has a full copy of its genome, an organism's proteome (its full complement of proteins) is spread over different organs, to the point you could speak of subsets such as liveromes, brainomes, etc. A particularly ingenious line of research concerns collagen, a structural protein common to bone, skin, blood vessels, and other connective tissues. Ancient collagen is ubiquitous in the fossil record and can be digested by enzymes. The resulting collection of protein fragments is unique to each organism, acting as a protein fingerprint. The Ancient Biomolecules Laboratory at the University of Manchester, headed up by Michael Buckley, has created a reference library with a large number of such organism-specific protein fragmentation patterns. This has allowed other researchers to determine the identity of tiny bone fragments by their collagen, as these are too small to identify morphologically. How neat is that!

    These are but a few examples of the interesting science that Greenwalt has dug up. One noteworthy theme, subtly woven throughout the book, is the value of peer review. Greenwalt makes this point most explicitly in his portrait of creationist-turned-palaeontologist Mary Schweitzer. Over the last two decades, her lab has published a string of eye-catching but controversial papers, claiming to have found ancient proteins, blood cells, and blood vessels in dinosaur bones. In a very even-handed discussion, Greenwalt explains her work and why others disagree with it. He reminds readers that "controversial doesn't necessarily mean wrong" (p. 127). It is simply too soon to tell if this research will turn into "a new and legitimate field of paleobiology or will be shown to be invalid, a dream based on inaccurate or misinterpreted data" (p. 127). For now, the friction is leading to better science, with Schweitzer and her opponents producing more and better evidence to make their case. Greenwalt provides a few more examples: aDNA research went through "a period of scientific dilettantism" (p. 151) resulting in outlandish claims, while another study on supposedly ancient salt crystals containing cellulose fibres has similarly been deflated, serving "to affirm the value of scientific criticism by one's peers" (p. 201). I appreciated that Greenwalt does not hector you on this point; he just puts it out there and leaves it for the attentive reader to pick up on.

    This level of subtlety and smooth writing characterises the whole book. Greenwalt's main course of digested scientific findings comes with a seasoning of (personal) anecdotes and the occasional dash of humour. Chapters are never too long, are well-organised through headings, and logically flow into each other. He strikes a good balance between the different biomolecules, giving them all their due. The book has a decent selection of black-and-white photos and a handful of helpful diagrams designed by Greenwalt that clarify concepts or results. If you think you cannot stomach yet another popular book on palaeontology, think again. Remnants of Ancient Life is as fascinating as the inviting cover and subtitle suggest, managing to put a completely fresh gloss on the topic of palaeontology.
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Dale E. Greenwalt is a Resident Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where he curates the Kishenehn Formation fossil insect collection.

By: Dale E Greenwalt(Author)
278 pages, 28 b/w photos and b/w illustrations, 1 table
Surveying fascinating research on what ancient biomolecules can tell us about extinct lifeforms, Remnants of Ancient Life puts a fresh gloss on the topic of palaeontology.
Media reviews

"[A] vivid, gripping book [...] Dale Greenwalt [...] has written a riveting account of a field achieving revolutionary insights."
– Simon Ings, New Scientist

"[An] eye-opening guide to this new world of understanding, one that encompasses chemistry along with biology."
– David P. Barash, Wall Street Journal

"An accessible book on ancient life that focuses as much on chemistry as on biology."
– Wade Lee-Smith, Library Journal

"[Fascinating] [...] an unabashedly excited report from the front lines"
– Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Review

"The book provides a fascinating journey through the very latest in research into the origins of life on Earth [...] No one should be intimidated by this highly readable work."
– David Gascoigne, Travels with Birds

"When you think of fossils, your mind likely goes straight to dinosaur skeletons and saber-toothed tiger skulls and ancient seashells. In this readable and engaging book, Dale Greenwalt introduces us to less heralded fossils: microscopic molecules like DNA, proteins, and pigment. Through his relatable prose and stories of discovery, Greenwalt convincingly argues that some of the smallest fossils have the biggest stories to tell."
– Steve Brusatte, New York Times bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"In Remnants of Ancient Life, Dale Greenwalt takes readers on a grand tour through our deepest history, guided by the tiniest of fossils. Engaging and personable, this book offers a fascinating discussion of the latest developments and discoveries in paleontology."
– Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth

"If your perception of paleontology is stuck in the past, you need to read this book. Dale Greenwalt takes readers on a far-ranging expedition with biochemical fossil hunters who use trace elements, pigments, proteins, and DNA to reconstruct not only evolutionary lineages but the colors, diets, and behavior of long-vanished organisms – conjuring them out of rocks and back to life."
– Marcia Bjornerud, author of Timefulness

"Remnants of Ancient Life takes readers on a spirited tour of paleontology's new frontier – ancient molecules preserved within fossils and sediments. From dinosaur behavior and the feeding strategies of extinct insects to the evolutionary relationships of mammoths and previously unknown cousins of Neanderthals, Greenwalt shows how ancient molecules are providing novel insights into our biological past."
– Andrew H. Knoll, author of A Brief History of Earth

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