It’s not often that the “Could this happen?” question in science is answered with a no. This looks like one of those times. The sad news? It doesn’t seem as though we’ll be able to clone dinos from DNA like they did in Jurassic Park. That’s right, Hollywood lied to us. Feeling betrayed? Me too. Just a little.
Scientists from the University of Manchester tried, but were ultimately unsuccessful at extracting DNA from insects trapped in amber for over 10,000 years. In fact, they even went so far as to say that it’s probably impossible to extract usable DNA from dinosaur-aged samples. Let’s all take a moment to be collectively disappointed.
The scientists were working with bees in copal, which is hardened tree resin that forms before amber. The samples they used were between 60 and 10,600 years old, and while they were able to extract some nucleotides (which form the building blocks of DNA) in the younger specimens, they didn’t find a trace of ancient DNA. They also weren’t able to match the nucleotide sequences to the modern equivalent of the bees.
Remember the explanation video John Hammond shows Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler, and Dr. Grant after their arrival at Jurassic Park? At least at the time, that seemed somewhat plausible to me. I guess the University of Manchester scientists thought so too: “Intuitively, one might imagine that the complete and rapid engulfment in resin, resulting in almost instantaneous demise, might promote the preservation of DNA in a resin entombed insect, but this appears not to be the case,” said team member David Penney. Their entire article is available at PLOS One in case you want to read more about why you’ll never be able to escape (or be eaten by, if that’s more your thing) a velicoraptor.
Their study confirms findings by a team from New Zealand last year that the half-life of DNA is about 521 years. Even in ideal circumstances, every trace of DNA would disappear in fewer than seven million years, and would likely be unusable after about 1.5 million. Given that dinosaurs were around some 65 million years ago, it’s not surprising that further examination would find that attempts to clone a T-Rex are futile. Don’t worry, though — we’re still trying to clone John Lennon, woolly mammoths, and Neanderthals, all of which are, at least theoretically, young enough. And we’ve already been able to bring back at least one extinct species — the Pyrenean ibex.
Also, Pleistocene Park, which is clearly the closest we’ll get to Jurassic Park, offers a Siberian habitat that would be the perfect proving ground for some resurrected species, such as extinct horses, oxen, or, eventually, the woolly mammoth. Maybe.