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Modern antibodies date ancient shells.

What happens when you inject a rabbit with amino acids extracted from the shell of a modern Mercenaria mollusk? No, it's not a way to find out if the mollusk is pregnant; rather, it's the first step in a new technique for dating the fossils of mollusks that lived during the last million years or so.

In the second step, the researchers isolate the antibodies produced by the rabbit's immune system in response to the injected molecules. They then observe the antibodies' reactions with the amino acids of fossil Mercenaria. Since amino acid molecules degrade with time and heat, the extent of the antibody-amino acid reactions enables the researchers to gauge the number of intact amino acids and the age of the shell.

Gerard Muyzer and Peter Westbroek of the University of Leiden in The Netherlands and John F. Wehmiller at the University of Delaware in Newark have recently demonstrated the viability of this technique with samples from five East Coast sites whose age and temperature history are well known. According to Wehmiller, however, the researchers are most interested in this immunological method to ensure that another biochemical dating technique -- based on measuring the number of left-handed forms of amino acids that have racemized or changed to the right-hand structure over time -- is providing consistent results. While the immunological approach does have its drawbacks, the researchers in The Netherlands are so intrigued by it that they are setting up a center entirely devoted to the new field of geoimmunology.
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Author:Weisburd, Stefi
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 16, 1985
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