So, last week, after my column on some horrific physics of Magic, my girlfriend asked me a question that hits really close to home- it’s probably not the one you were thinking:
Could you talk about Jurassic Park/possibility of dinosaurs? How plausible is it to recreate a dino?
Most people dedicate songs or poems to their loved ones- but I’m going to dedicate SCIENCE!
There was a very long period of my life- from about 5-16- that I was determined to be a paleontologist. I went absolutely triceratops-shit for dinosaurs and fossils, and while my career choices have changed to a different field, I’m still mesmerized by the terrible lizards of old. And I owe it all to one single movie: 1996’s Jurassic Park.
So, if some of you haven’t seen Jurassic Park before- go. Now. Go on, I’ll wait.
All caught up? Okay, so could scientists clone dinosaurs? maybe.
We’ve certainly cloned other animals before- most people know about Dolly, the cloned sheep, but she wasn’t the first animal ever cloned. Technically the first animal that we would have called “cloned” was a Sea Urchin all the way back in 1885. But Dolly represented a majestic step forward- or hop over a fence- for science.
GET IT? IT’S COUNTING SHEEP!
Dolly wasn’t the first animal to be cloned- she wasn’t even the first mammal to be cloned. She was, however the first animal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. This means that they didn’t use a sex cell (sperm, egg, zygote) or an infantile stem cell- they actually used a random cell from a mammary gland. It’s important because it meant that we could take a pretty much ordinary cell (not a cell meant for reproduction), and create a clone from it.
Now the process of cloning isn’t necessarily as you might imagine it- we still need an egg from a fellow member of the species and we need a surrogate mother to incubate and foster the artificially-created zygote. But, just like an identical twin, the result would have the exact genetic make-up of the original.
That’s not all to the messy, horrific miracle of birth, however. Any psychologist would gladly tell you that you are more than the product of a genetic lottery, experience and up-bringing plays an awful lot into your life. It’s a lot like turning on a light: sure, the circuitry and bulb needs to be in place and wired up correctly (akin to genetics) but something also needs to flip the switch (experiences). That’s a lesson that Star Trek: Nemesis taught us all.
A lesson I’m sure both Patrick Stewart and Tom Hardy would like to forget
So, this presents the first hurdle for the people at Jurassic Park. Obviously they couldn’t use a dinosaur to incubate the first dinosaur zygote- nor could they get an egg from a live dinosaur. In the movie, the scientists solve this by putting the dino DNA into the ovum of a crocodile. And in theory that’d work pretty fine, but there’s still the problem of actually getting the dinosaur DNA.
As you might remember from the cartoon DNA strand, in the movie, scientists collected DNA from the dinosaur blood in mosquitoes stuck in amber.
The blood of the Dinosaurs would contain some DNA, and we’ve shown that we can clone an animal from a random cell. The problem is that, much like last week’s casserole, DNA goes bad after a while. A 2012 study managed to discover the half-life of DNA: 521 years. That means that about half the Dino DNA had gone bad only about 500 years after it died. And it turns out it starts to be largely unreadable after about 1.5 million years. Which means that the 65-million year old dinosaur DNA is pretty much all shot- completely ruling out the possibility of bringing the likes of T-rex back.
But even if the DNA in the amber was readable, they’d still need to sequence it and fill in the gaps. In the movie, they use frog DNA. Now, back when the movie was made, we knew a lot less about Dinosaurs so it made sense to us. But Dinosaurs aren’t related to amphibians- in fact, as the movie points out, they’re much more closely related to birds.
This actually could be the reason that the Jurassic park dinosaurs don’t have brightly colored feathers like most of the fossil records suggest. It’s never really noted in the official stuff, but it’s a personal fan theory.
Unfortunately for my younger self, there really is no way to bring back the Dinosaurs. And even if there was, there wouldn’t really be any way for them to survive- the oxygen levels have dropped significantly since then, so the resurrected dinosaurs would be wheezing and choking and unable to move.
Anyway, be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films on Mondays, appropriately titled Mindless Action Mondays
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