Nothing lasts forever … or does it? Researchers recently discovered the oldest preserved piece of every 10-year-old boy’s favorite gross plaything – slime. At 100 million years old, there weren’t any 10-year-old hominins to play with this stuff before it got encased in the world’s best, or at least the world’s first, preservative -- amber. That means it’s not slimy anymore, but a 2,600-year-old human brain still is – despite not being frozen or preserved in any way – and researchers have finally figured out why. Could this technique have saved the slime?
“Here, we report exquisitely preserved myxomycete sporocarps in amber from Myanmar, ca. 100 million years old, one of the few fossil myxomycetes, and the only definitive Mesozoic one. Six densely-arranged stalked sporocarps were engulfed in tree resin while young, with almost the entire spore mass still inside the sporotheca. All morphological features are indistinguishable from those of the modern, cosmopolitan genus Stemonitis, demonstrating that sporocarp morphology has been static since at least the mid-Cretaceous.”
That’s palaeobiologist-speak for “We found 100 million-year-old slime in tree resin and it looks just like modern slime.” In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports and summarized in a press release, researchers from the Universities of Göttingen and Helsinki, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Myxomycete sporocarps are slime mold and these are more than twice as old as the 35-to-40-million-year-old slime which held the previous age ‘world’s oldest’ record. The stalk-like ‘fruiting’ bodies of the molds are short-lived, so that makes this discovery doubly rare. The amber also contained a lizard which the researchers surmised had torn the mold from the tree bark that released the resin causing its demise.
The lizard obviously wasn’t using its brain, which brings us to the well-preserved ‘Heslington brain', the oldest brain ever found in Eurasia. The brain was found in Heslington, a village of York, in 2008 when archeologists, commissioned to check the area before the University of York built its new campus, found in a wet pit an Iron Age skull of a man in his 30s with his brain still inside of it. It appears the man was hanged and then decapitated – no body was found – and they suspect foul play. Amazingly, the brain showed almost no signs of decay and had shrunk less that 20% of its original size. While the pit was wet and lacked the oxygen necessary for decay, no one has been able to determine why the Heslington brain survived. Until now.
"The manner of this individual’s death, or subsequent burial, may have enabled the brain’s long term preservation.”
Foul play may have killed him, but it also saved this man’s brain for 2,600 years, according to Dr. Axel Petzold of the University College London Queen Square Institute of Neurology and co-author of a paper on the discovery published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. A pioneer in the study of two types of filaments in the brain – neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) which act like scaffolds to hold brain matter together, Petzold suspected these proteins helped preserve the Heslington brain.
Brains decompose quickly after death because enzymes eat the filaments first. However, in the case of the former owner of the Heslington brain, the hanging or decapitation may have caused or allowed an acidic fluid to enter it and stop the decomposition dead no pun intended) in its tracks. This rare occurrence is great news for those looking to study ancient brains, but does it have any other benefits? The press release gives an answer.
“The research team conducted an experiment to see how long it took brain protein aggregates to unfold themselves, and found it took a full year, which could imply that treatments for neurodegenerative diseases (which involve protein aggregates) may also need to consider a more long-term approach to tackling harmful protein aggregates.”
Whoever he was and however he died, the mysterious man from Heslington managed to donate his brain to science 2,600 years later. As for the slime, it offers hope that a small piece of us could be found 100 million years from now … at least those who hang around sappy tree.