Last week, I blogged about the latest film in the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World. For decades, Jurassic Park has fed the dreams of many, and even achieved the seemingly impossible task of making genetics remotely exciting to the mainstream public. Of course, the film raises one 65 million dollar question: would it actually be possible to bring dinosaurs back to life?
Though Jurassic Park belongs to the realm of science fiction because it features technology beyond our current capabilities, that’s not to say it’s grounded in theoretical nonsense. Far from it.
In the original story, InGen scientists use preserved dinosaur blood to extract DNA samples, and eventually breed the creatures back from the dead. How do they obtain it? From mosquito fossils trapped and perfectly preserved by amber.
How do they get the amber? From sticky tree sap, which traps insects unfortunate enough to land on it. When sap hardens with age, it turns into amber and acts as a preservative which can protect the bloodsucking insects for millions of years. That includes anything contained within them, too. For instance, a mosquito was recently discovered which had the blood of another animal inside its stomach dating back 46 million years. Not quite the age of dinosaurs, but close indeed.
So would it just be a case of finding the right fossil? Well it’s not quite so straightforward. DNA gets damaged over long time periods. Since dinosaurs were extinct 65 million years ago, it’s unlikely we will ever find a perfectly preserved strand of DNA. In addition, it’s likely the dinosaur DNA would mix with the containing animal’s DNA, again most likely making it unusable.
In Jurassic Park, this issue is acknowledged and addressed by completing the prehistoric genetic jigsaw with frog DNA. While possible in theory, it would be incredibly tricky because DNA is made up of million of pieces. It would amount to completing a puzzle made up of million of pieces by looking for identical parts in a different, yet equally complex puzzle.
Finally, even if DNA could be reconstructed, scientists would need to find cells from another related species to actually grow an embryo, and then a hosting egg as well. That wouldn’t be the trickiest stage – whilst dinosaurs grew massive, their eggs weren’t bigger than that of an ostrich.
Dodging the many obstacles to assemble a full dinosaur genome, never mind somehow figure how the conditions under which it could grow into a full animal seems problematic. Not impossible by any means, but somewhat limited by our current scientific knowledge.
Interestingly, that’s not to say we couldn’t bring back other recently extinct beasts like the Woolly Mammoth, which in the grand scheme of evolution only died a few days ago. With modern cloning techniques, it would be possible to bring back species which died in the past few million years. The mammoth, many remains of which are incredibly well preserved because of ice, fits the criteria.
Putting DNA aside, we have a far greater chance of bringing dinosaurs back by focusing on species we now know evolved from them, namely birds. That’s right, the pigeon which shit on your car is a velociraptor in disguise!
Experiments on embryos show that birds have many features similar to dinosaur, which disappear during their embryonic development because of how they’ve evolved. Similar evolutionary traits can be observed in humans, which is why we have a tiny tail bone for instance.
If those features could be manipulated and retained, we could breed birds with dinosaur-like features. This could include long tails or sharp teeth. We could even change their size. Essentially, this would create dinosaurs through controlled devolution. Such work is past the stage of theory – you can see an example of it at 34:44 in this documentary.
Back in 1992, the idea of Jurassic Park was a well thought fantasy. Today, it would barely qualify as sci-fi. Of course, in both situations highlighted above, the resulting creatures wouldn’t really be dinosaurs as such. Rather, they would be genetic hybrids adopting dinosaurs traits. The same can be said of the creatures in Jurassic Park.
Such advanced scientific research would require a significant level of investment. As shown in Jurassic World, investors would most likely seek a quick return on their cash, and a theme park would definitely be a viable way to do so.
Such project would raise countless moral issues. Should we really try to bring back extinct species whilst doing so little to protect currently threatened ones? Can a dinosaur renaissance be justified by anything more convincing than the undeniable fact that it would be quite cool? With such extreme genetic manipulation could come serious danger for our fragile eco-system, which we cannot even begin to imagine. Is this really worth the risk?
This debate is now about ethics just as much as it is science. The key question is no longer ‘could we do it?’, but whether we should.