As the summer winds to a close, I tend to look back at some of the activities I’ve done with my kids. Living in Ohio, I have access to one of the best zoos in the country, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. However, after a couple visits, it gets tiresome of looking at the same animals over and over again.
Thanks to the heartbreaking documentary Blackfish, it’s not cool to visit Sea World any more (and the old Sea World of Ohio location fled the state for warmer temperatures years ago). Without these options, there are few opportunities to look at new and interesting animals.
Having recently watched Jurassic Park, I found myself wishing there was a real-life dinosaur park where I could take the kids. Of course, it should be humanely run and not include any velociraptors running amok due to a greedy programmer shutting down park security. I’m sure those issues of park life would be ironed out in beta testing.
This got me thinking, at least for next summer’s family activities: How close are scientists to making a real-life Jurassic Park by cloning dinosaurs?
The Answer: Still about 65 million years… give or take 10,000 years.
Jurassic Park, originally written by medical and technological guru Michael Crichton, actually posed a fairly plausible scenario in which billionaire John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs back into existence. In general terms, the scientists in the book and subsequent film extracted dinosaur DNA from biting insects like mosquitoes that had been trapped in amber and fossilized over millions of years.
That DNA was then extracted, sequenced, injected into reptilian ova, incubated in artificially-designed eggs, and eventually hatched. Voilà! Shake-and-bake dinosaurs!
The only problem with this process is that there are massive gaps in the technology and biological science. DNA is just the first step, but it takes a lot more than just some genetic material to clone an entire organism. Using current cloning technology, scientists would need an entire nucleus – or rather many intact nuclei – to even start the procedure. The nucleus of a cell includes a lot more than just the DNA. It also includes membranes, a support structure, cytoplasm, and a variety of proteins used to organize the DNA into chromosomes.
Just having the DNA of a cell is like only having the engine of a car. It’s not going to go very far without the body, transaxle, wheels, and fuel system. Even with an entire nucleus, cloning requires the use of a specific species ovum and egg, which is specialized to the species. You can’t simply interchange disparate species’ bits and pieces, cramming a dinosaur embryo into a crocodile egg. It would be like incubating a human in a wombat.
But even if all of this technology were available, you’d still need the DNA, and unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. A couple decades ago, some even claimed to have found DNA in samples as old as 130 million years (which is smack-dab in the middle of the geologic dinosaur window). Sadly, those claims appear to be inaccurate, and the DNA discovered came from contemporary sources that contaminated the samples.
The reason there is no dinosaur DNA left anywhere on the planet is because the fantastically complex DNA molecule is actually quite fragile, from a preservation standpoint. Very soon after the death of an organism, DNA starts to break down. Paleontologists in Australia determined that the DNA molecule has a half-life of only 521 years. This means that every 521 years, half of the DNA would decompose. In other words, in just over 3,000 years, there would be less than 1 percent left; in 6,000 years, only 0.1 percent left; and in 12,000 years, there would only be 0.01 percent left.
Even if the DNA of a creature were preserved in ideal conditions at –5 degrees C, the sample would become unreadable in 1.5 million years and be completely gone in 6.8 million years. With the last dinosaur walking the earth 65 million years ago, that means all dino DNA has been gone for more than 57 million years even under the best conditions.
But didn’t British scientists already do this?
Just because you saw a link to the story on Facebook or Twitter does not mean it’s a true story. There was a story that emerged a year or so ago about scientists claiming to have cloned a dinosaur. However, the source was a web site that also falsely reported a marooned woman was saved by Google Earth. Plus, the dino cloning article was also reported by the Weekly World News, which is most famous for its stories about Bat Boy, so consider the source of anything showing up on your social media “news” feed.
In other words, this story is complete bunk.
The other big problem in the Jurassic Park scenario is a plot device Crichton developed for dramatic reasons. In the book and the film, the gaps in the genetic code were filled with amphibian DNA. This was done simply to have a way for the creatures in the park to change sexes in order to breed in the wild, which resulted from some frogs being able to switch genders.
In reality, scientists would likely use avian DNA to fill in the gaps, considering it is pointed out multiple times in the book and film that dinosaurs have much more in common with birds than reptiles or amphibians.
Still, even with bird or amphibian DNA to fill in the gaps, there would be no original DNA left in the first place.
So, there can’t be any dinosaurs, but…
What about other extinct creatures?
While cloning dinosaurs seems to be out of the question, there might be a possibility for other ancient creatures to walk the earth again. In particular, a remarkably well-preserved wooly mammoth found in the ground of Lyakhovsky Island in the New Siberian Islands of northeastern Russia might offer an opportunity for a Mammoth Park instead of a Jurassic Park.
Russian scientists believe there is a chance to extract DNA from the preserved soft tissue of the creature, which still includes intact blood vessels and muscular protein.
If this cloning of the mammoth works, it might be possible to resurrect other ancient species, like the saber-toothed cat or even prehistoric man, granted we find preserved DNA. Also, recently extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and the dodo bird could find new life with cloning.
There is even a practical environmental application of cloning technology beyond the novelty of bringing ancient or extinct species back to life. Now that scientists understand the importance of preserved DNA and nuclei in the cloning process, several initiatives are underway to preserve current endangered species by banking their DNA.
The “Frozen Ark” is one such bank in the U.K., supported by the Natural History Museum, the Zoological Society of London, and Nottingham University. An additional international bank of endangered species DNA is also being developed.
So maybe there won’t be a real-life Jurassic Park any time in the near future. However, there might be a Pliocene Park someday where you can see a wooly mammoth romp next to the dodo bird.