There’s a new Jurassic Park movie coming out this summer, and it brings up a question I’ve had percolating in my mind ever since the first Jurassic Park movie was released. I liked that first movie—I thought it reasonably well done. It had excellent special effects and a believable story line, at least for a sci-fi movie. It wasn’t a war type or superhero sci-fi movie either. Some of the attempts of tension and conflict were a bit overdone, but the one thing I’ve wondered about ever since I saw that movie is whether the science that upholds the story would actually work. Is it possible to recreate dinosaurs in our time? My answer is an overwhelming no. Here’s why.
The premise of the movie is that we take the contents of the stomach of a blood-sucking insect such as a mosquito who just ate a blood meal from a dinosaur and got trapped in amber (a form of fossilized resin) and held there for 65 million years (since the dinosaurs died out). We humans extract the DNA and use it to recreate the dinosaur it came from. It sounds reasonable, but there are several caveats that suggest it isn’t likely to work. First, we have to assume that the insect has been in that amber for all those 65 million years. Just because an insect is encased in amber doesn’t mean it came from the dinosaur era, unless we can identify it as an insect that lived only during the time of the dinosaurs. Second, even if it lived then, the DNA in that insect’s stomach has also been there for 65 million years. That’s one helluva long time, and it’s extremely unlikely the DNA would still be in a form we could work with. It will be so degraded it won’t look like DNA anymore. It would be almost useless. DNA has to be stored at a very low temperature to remain workable for any length of time. That’s the way I treated it when I worked with it in my lab, and that’s standard procedure for all labs that work with DNA. That piece of amber would be exposed to high variations in temperature for all those millions of years—hot, cold, hot, cold, etc., and that can damage DNA. No telling what that DNA would look like when we got ahold of it.
Third, when that insect took a blood meal, it treated the blood as food. As soon as the blood got into its stomach and intestines, the digestive enzymes began to work on it and degrade it. Even if that insect got trapped in amber within a few seconds after its meal, the enzymes would continue to work for a short time until the death of the insect stopped them. By then, a lot of the DNA could be so degraded.it would be useless.
Fourth, the protocol for recreating a dinosaur assumes that we extract the DNA and fill in any holes with modern-day reptilian DNA such as alligator or turtle or snake DNA. But if the dinosaur DNA is as badly damaged as I suspect it may be—let’s assume at most one percent of the dinosaur DNA remains (and that’s a big assumption)—then ninety-nine percent will be modern-day reptile DNA. In that case, all we’ll get is a modern-day reptile with a little bit of dinosaur DNA.
I say forget the science behind Jurassic Park. Just enjoy the movie.