Insects in amber hint at Jurassic dreams

Tyrannosaurus rex: In the film Jurassic Park, dinosaurs are recreated from blood trapped in amber. © NHM

Could scientists bring dinosaurs back to life? Bugs preserved in amber offer a window into prehistory. But resurrecting the dinosaurs is not going to be as simple as it is in the movies.

In 2003, the clone of an extinct Spanish mountain goat called Celia was born. She only survived for a few minutes.

Celia was the first animal ever to be brought back from extinction – and to go extinct twice.

Some scientists want to continue resurrecting lost species.

While plans to bring back white rhinoceroses and woolly mammoths might be more realistic, a handful of researchers still hope to bring dinosaurs back from the grave.

This week, a study was published announcing the discovery of 35 amber pieces in Myanmar. These were filled with perfectly preserved prehistoric insects around 100 million years old.

Amazingly, some of the bugs seem to have kept their original colour. One has a metallic-green shine, another a purple hue. As the Times points out: “The preservation of colour in the fossil record was long thought improbable, if not impossible.”

According to Cai Chenyang of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, who led the study, the findings were also interesting because “the amber is mid-Cretaceous dating to the golden age of dinosaurs”.

Such a finding echoes the plot of the film, Jurassic Park. There, dinosaurs are brought back to life after their blood is extracted from ancient mosquitos trapped in amber. The DNA from this blood is combined with that of other species and hatched out of an egg.

But Dr Susie Maidment, a dinosaur researcher at the Natural History Museum, points out that “when amber preserves things, it tends to preserve the husk, not the soft tissues. So you don’t get blood preserved inside mosquitos in amber”.

This is especially true of DNA, which is essential in any cloning process. Currently, the oldest recorded specimen of DNA is around a million years old. Dinosaurs became extinct more than 65 million years ago.

But Helen Pilcher, author of Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction, describes how, in 1980, one researcher found a fly trapped in amber that had “cells still intact after 40 million years”.

This inspired other bold scientists to claim that “if one could recover a dinosaur blood cell from inside that mosquito, and then transplant it into an egg that had had its own DNA removed”, it might be possible to “grow a dinosaur”.

Not all scientists are relying on DNA samples to achieve the dream of resurrecting the terrible lizards.

Jack Horner, a palaeontologist famous for finding proof that some dinosaurs cared for their young, believes that he could “make a dinosaur” within a decade by making evolution “run backwards”.

This would be achieved by toying with the genetics of a dinosaur’s descendent (say, the modern chicken) in an effort to bring out its inner dinosaur – be that a longer tail, or sharper teeth.

So, could scientists bring dinosaurs back to life?

Life finds a way

Yes. Every time a mosquito in amber is found, there will be a flicker of excitement. The past comes to life in the study of these amazing creatures. It’s natural to fantasise about meeting them or imagining them in their original environments. Who knows what science will make possible in the future?

No. There are so many practical obstacles, not least the fact that no one has any idea how to find fully preserved DNA from so long ago. There are also ethical issues. As one character says in Jurassic Park: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.” Dinosaurs wouldn’t have space in our world.

You Decide

  1. If you could bring back just one dinosaur which one would it be, and why?
  2. Do you think trying to bring back the dinosaurs is the best use of scientific minds and resources?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture imagining how dinosaurs and humans would coexist in the modern world.
  2. Imagine that dinosaurs are brought back into our world. Write up a list of the rights and laws to protect them.

Some People Say...

“If we measured success by longevity, then dinosaurs must rank as the number one success story in the history of land life.”

Robert T Bakker, American palaeontologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
While resuscitating dinosaurs might not happen anytime soon, scientists at a Japanese university recently declared taking a “significant step towards bringing mammoths back from the dead”. When the DNA of this ancient elephant was injected into a mouse egg cell, the researchers saw “signs of biological activity”.
What do we not know?
We do not know if bringing ancient animals back to life can ever be right. Dr Susie Maidment says, “I think there is potentially an argument for bringing back something that we humans made extinct. So, if someone was going to bring back the passenger pigeon, then I think you could justify that.”

Word Watch

Prehistoric
Used to refer to anything really ancient. History is thought to have begun around 3,000 years ago with the advent of writing. Anything that predates this time is measured not through text and human knowledge but by dating objects, bones, and other materials.
Cretaceous
Period in Earth’s history between 145 and 65 million years ago. The end of this period marked the end of the dinosaurs when a mass extinction, likely caused by an asteroid impact, changed the wildlife of our planet.
DNA
A molecule that lives inside most cells and contains the genetic instructions or information for the growth and behaviour of most living things, including dinosaurs and raspberries.
Amber
Fossilised resin – which is the viscous (thick, sticky) liquid inside a tree that protects it from external threats. Amber has been appreciated for its colour and natural beauty since Neolithic times.
Terrible lizards
Ancient Greek translation for the word “dinosaur”.
Palaeontologist
A scientist who studies the fossilised remains of all kinds of organisms (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria).

Subjects

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