Amazing Animals part3- Digging up the science behind Jurassic Park, as the park re opens for the first time
in 14 years
It seems today that a phase of obsession with dinosaurs is just part of growing up, with almost every child shaking with both fear and fascination at the image of a Tyrannosaurus rex, but here I am as a 17-year-old A level student and my fascination with dinosaurs is still the size of a towering Diplodocus, part of this is, I’m sure, down to growing up with Steven Spielberg’s epic trilogy, which will be added to in under a month with the release of ’Jurassic World’. Now that I am old enough to understand the science behind the films I did some excavating of my own, to uncover the science behind Jurassic Park.
In the films Ingen, a fictional bioengineering company, extract dinosaur DNA from the stomachs of prehistoric blood- sucking insects preserved in dried tree sap, the theory being that in the insect’s stomach there will be preserved blood from a dinosaur, full of cells from which to extract dinosaur DNA and grow the park some new attractions. This is very well in theory but the science behind it is rather patchy: firstly, the blood of the dinosaurs and any DNA it contained in the insects stomach would be destroyed and unrecoverable by the time the insect has met its slow demise at the hands of the amber. The insect’s digestive system would destroy any cells or DNA from the dinosaur long before it suffocated and died in the drying amber, so if Ingen did grow organisms from what they extracted from the preserved insects they would end up with a room full of mosquitoes buzzing as opposed to dinosaurs roaring.
If any DNA was extracted, further problems would be met; this DNA would be a mere fragment of the dinosaur’s genome, nowhere near enough to grow an entire organism. This problem is tackled by Ingen in the series with the gaps in the dinosaurs DNA being ‘patched up’ with DNA from frogs, again a reasonable theory but in order for this to work the two organisms would need to be very close relatives, almost identical- which of course a garden frog and a 10 ton T-rex are not. The closest matches we have today are birds and they are still hundreds of millions of years estranged from their prehistoric predecessors.
Let’s say then that Ingen managed to fully extract and organize, another mammoth task in its self(pun not intended), a dinosaurs DNA they would meet further setbacks when they tried to start growing the shiny-new attractions for their park; in order to grow a dinosaur its genome would need placing into the egg of a very similar species so it could develop and grow, again sourcing these eggs may be a little tricky, the best hope would be something like an Ostrich and these would still be no use in growing a dinosaur.
While the theories thrown up by the films don’t bode well for dinosaur lovers around the world, who still have fantasies of gazing out of a jeep window at an ambling herd of stegosaurus, there is some hope: Palaeontologist Jack Horner and his team are busy working on both trying to extract dinosaur DNA from any cells salvageable from fossilized bones and, more interestingly reversing evolution to create a dinosaur from a chicken. They are genetically modifying chickens, as birds are the closest we have today to dinosaurs, to ‘turn on’ some of their old inactive genes, to create a ‘chickenosaurus’. Horner proposes that there could be a gene that prevents the fusing of the three wing bones in a modern-day bird to give a three-pronged, claw-like hand, the kind that would be seen a velociraptor. Birds also develop tails, like the ones seen on a velociraptor, in early stages of embryonic development but this development is halted by another gene to give a tail-less bird. Matthew Harris, in a lab at Harvard Medical School, has already made the first breakthrough in this field, successfully breeding a chicken with teeth as opposed to a beak. With this and further work from Horner and his team maybe in the future free range chickenosaurus eggs will find a place on our supermarket shelves, definitely not on the organic aisle though.