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Why We Can’t Create a Real-Life Jurassic Park (Assuming We’d Even Want To)

Why We Can’t Create a Real-Life Jurassic Park (Assuming We’d Even Want To)

A rare mosquito fossil complete with traces of its last meal of 46-million-year-old animal blood has been discovered, but even though this might sound like the beginnings of the Jurassic Park dream, scientists have been quick to point out there are a few reasons why that cannot happen.

The female specimen was recently found in oil shale in northwestern Montana as one of 36 mosquitoes recovered from what is known as the Kishenehn Formation.

It is regarded as valuable because when it was donated to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the specimen’s abdomen was noticed to be dark and distended: meaning that not long before it had died, it most likely had fed and the contents of its meal, the blood of another animal, might also have been preserved.

Researchers set about ascertaining whether there were any traces of blood by bombarding the fossil with molecules of bismuth to cause chemicals in the fossil to vaporize. They then tested that vapor using a mass spectrometer, which identifies chemicals by their atomic weights. What they found were traces of heme, an organic compound central to hemoglobin, indicating that the iron present in the sample was in fact from blood and not from the fossilization process.

Why is this important? According to George Poinar, a paleo-entomologist at Oregon State University who wasn’t involved in the research, this demonstrates that blood drinking mosquitoes were already feeding 46 million years ago, suggesting they may have been around much earlier than had previously been thought.

The research is made yet more interesting by the fact that the fossil wasn’t preserved in amber, as in the above picture, but rather shale. Lead researcher Dale Greenwalt, of the National Museum of Natural History, told LiveScience that the chances of that happening were “infinitesimally small.”

“The insect had to take a blood meal, be blown to the water’s surface, and sink to the bottom of a pond or similar structure to be quickly embedded in fine anaerobic sediment, all without disruption of its fragile distended blood-filled abdomen.”

Details of the find are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America where the full experiment and its implications are explained.

So, given the recent discussion about bringing extinct animals back by sampling their genetic material, why is it that we can rule out a Jurassic Park style resurrection of dinosaurs?

There are several reasons, but the key one is precisely the reason why in the case of this recent find we can’t tell what animal the mosquito dined on before it died: DNA has a short half-life, with recent evidence suggesting it to be at about 521 years. That means that any sample over one to two million years old would be unusable, putting the 65 million year old dinosaurs, or the 46 million year old animal represented in the fossil, firmly out of reach. That’s not to say all extinct species are beyond our abilities to resurrect, however.

De-extinction is possible and in the case of species like the woolly mammoth or the dodo, is a feasible if still distant reality (relying on many complex processes such as reverse engineering) that has nevertheless proved tantalizing for a great many in the science world and beyond.

There would be a number of problems related to reviving long dead species. Quite apart from the mechanics of it, for instance finding a host species capable of bearing a dodo, a main issue is how to overcome the challenge of engineering enough genetic diversity in the revived species to allow the species to breed successfully and stay alive. That’s no small problem, but it is within science’s reach to answer.

It’s also worth remembering that though dreams of reviving the dinosaurs Jurassic Park-style are now out of reach, the history that yet undiscovered fossils could still teach us remains a living, and extraordinary, prospect.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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36 comments

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4:46AM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

thanks for sharing :)

9:09AM PST on Nov 16, 2013

a cool prospect for sure.. but unwise

6:48PM PDT on Oct 21, 2013

thanks

6:41AM PDT on Oct 21, 2013

Its a ridiculous idea!

Plus at the rate we are going, we need to first try keep what already exists alive and well!

However having said that, the curiosity of the situation is fascinating.. I'm not saying that i would do it, however if given the opportunity to revive an ancient species with hardly any effort (especially financial) , i dont know what i would do.. i think it would take a lot of convincing to stop me

5:13AM PDT on Oct 21, 2013

Good grief! We won't even be able to stop half the animal/plant species that are already here from becoming extinct due to our greed and disregard of the environment, why on earth should we even try to bring back extinct species??

8:18PM PDT on Oct 19, 2013

As someone who used to know a little about organic chemistry (seems a long time ago...), it is obvious to me that if there is any fluidity in the environment of the DNA, it will indeed break down over geological times. The question would be how much mobility the nucleic acid molecules have. In a frozen solid, these can be very, very low, so that a sequence (with some errors) could still be obtained. It might not be the blueprint for life, but it could be scientifically valuable in understanding more about the extinct species. The samples people have studied (in amber resin, for example), still had essentially normal biological fluidity around them for many years (I think even the whole time), and so for sure one has to expect the degradation there.

Paula S. mentions seeds which remain dormant but capable for thousands of years; these are in a near-solid state until they get water; that is consistent with these thoughts.

11:08PM PDT on Oct 18, 2013

I'm a bit skeptical about the "half-life" of DNA, since there are trees that live longer than half a millennium and seeds that can remain dormant for thousands of years. I do think this is something we will be able to at least partially do not that far down the road. The tech is a lot more feasible than we thought twenty years ago.

That said, the earth was very different in the time of the dinosaurs (a thicker atmosphere, for example), so we'd probably need to genetically modify them so they could survive today, anyway.

10:12PM PDT on Oct 18, 2013

It was a lot warmer back then. With that in mind, it would seem that we are already turning the Earth into another "Jurassic Park", at least as far as climate is concerned.

8:07PM PDT on Oct 18, 2013

ty

5:02PM PDT on Oct 18, 2013

While DNA may not survive in its entirety, small sections may be retrievable and allow sequencing of the entire genome. Remember that our best current sequencing technology is based on cleaving the genome into small sections, sequencing them and then concatenating the result. We lack the technology to turn a DNA sequence into a live animal or even plant.

Proteins survive far better than DNA. By matching ancient proteins to their nearest modern equivalent one could by transgenic means derive a plant or animal that is similar in composition to the ancient source. It would not have the ancient genes that control development and maturation and would not externally resemble the original. A tomato that produces a protein from a salmon is still a tomato.

Perhaps the best option is to take decendants of the lost species which still have similar proteins and simillar structure and manipulate their developmental model to replicate their ancestors. A number of emminent paleontologists have claimed that one could derive a therapod from a chicken in 1000 generations or less.

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