Lynne Bell

You’re more of a fossil than you think

October 16, 2008

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By Marianne Meadahl

Correction appended

SFU forensic anthropologist Lynne Bell has made what she calls a “mind-blowing” discovery – a cell that fossilizes itself inside of our bones while we’re still alive.

Bell, an associate professor in the School of Criminology’s Forensic Research Centre, says we have millions of the mature bone cells, known as osteocytes, which can live for up to 15 years throughout our bodies. But she says the mineralized fossil cells are most plentiful in the inner ear bones where they live much longer.

"We've seen the capsule where the cell lives, and assumed it died and that the bone mineral simply grew into the now empty space," explains Bell, whose work with two other researchers was recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

"But after careful further study, we could see tiny structures in the mineral. What we thought was mineral overgrowth is a single fossilized cell inside the mineral. Which begged the question, how on earth does a cell fossilize when you are alive?"

Their research demonstrates that a single cell can mineralize inside living tissue via an unknown set of biochemical events. "One of the big questions in forensic and archaeological science,” says Bell, “is where is the recovered DNA coming from? Where and how is it stored? We don’t know.

“Here we have a single cell that fossilizes itself while the host is still living. In doing so it is preserving the DNA of that cell and many other cellular proteins. It really is quite extraordinary. I’ve even seen them in bones over five million years old.”

Until now, ear bones – known as ossciles – have been virtually ignored as a source of DNA during forensic investigations because they were thought to have no practical use, says Bell. But in light of this discovery, she says they should actually be the first place researchers look.

How many of these fossil cells do we have? “As we age we accumulate more and more of them,” says Bell. “So if you are 25 years and over you’ve got them, lots of them.”

Correction: October 16, 2008

The original, print version of this story mistakenly referred to Lynne Bell as a forensic archeologist; she is a forensic anthropologist. The print versioin also did not mention that Bell is an associate professor in SFU’s School of Criminology.
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