TORONTO – With the opening of Jurassic World this week, everyone is once again asking, “Can we clone dinosaurs?” The answer is easy: No.
But there’s more to the story than just cloning.
DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid — holds the genetic code of all living things. The Jurassic Park idea is that an ancient mosquito will have dined on dino blood and then perhaps gotten trapped in tree resin, dying.
Millions of years later, we come across the mosquito and dino blood and then geneticists work their magic to extract the DNA from the mosquito’s last meal and rebuild the dinosaur who got annoyed by said mosquito (can you imagine the frustration a T-rex would have trying to swat a mosquito?). The thing is, it’s just that: magic.
Not to say that geneticists haven’t done some amazing things (think: cloning in general). It’s just that getting that dinosaur DNA is proving to be extremely difficult.
Scientists have actually tried to extract DNA from tree resin. A 2013 study by researchers at The University of Manchester found that extracting DNA from insects preserved in copal (tree resin) that was between 60 to 10,600 years old, failed to yield any DNA at all from the insects themselves.
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The problem is that the resin is highly porous on a molecular level, allowing gases to travel in and out. Any DNA that once existed would be completely degraded.
As for extracting DNA from fossils, scientists say that that, too, is impossible as DNA doesn’t survive the processes of fossilization. The bones essentially turn to stone with organics being replaced with minerals.
But that doesn’t stop the public fascination with bringing these creatures back from the past.
“Someone summarized it as, they’re big, fierce and extinct,” said Donald Henderson, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta. “So they’re monsters that really lived, but they’re safely away from us.”
And their sheer size is perhaps another reason.
“The average dinosaur is about 10 times bigger than the average animal today.”
But should scientists be trying to recreate beasts that went extinct? Could they be playing with fire (have they not seen Jurassic Park?)?
“It’s in the nature of a lot of scientific thinking for some people, which is, if you can do it, you should try because you never know what’s going to come out of it,” Henderson said.
“I always think dinosaurs were dealt a very bad hand,” said Hans Larsson, a professor at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology. “I think it weren’t for that asteroid impact, they would still be the dominant land animals today.”
Building a dinosaur
There is talk about bringing back the woolly mammoth, the last of which is believed to have died out about 4,000 years ago. Scientists have been able to extract 43,000-year-old DNA from the remains of a woolly mammoth found in Siberia in 2013. The plan is to join it with the DNA of an elephant, the mammoth’s closest living relative.
“It would be fun to bring them back. They are such amazing animals,” Henderson said. “Can you imagine a giant, shaggy elephant with huge tusks? It would be pretty spectacular. Maybe it’s the closest we’ll ever get to bringing back dinosaurs.”
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But as for getting dinosaur DNA?
“The idea of finding original, intact DNA from extinct dinosaurs, that door is pretty much closed.”
But there is the possibility of reawakening dinosaur traits.
You may have heard that birds are ancestors of dinosaurs. But they are, in fact, dinosaurs themselves.
“We do know that birds are dinosaurs,” said Larsson.
And it turns out the chicken is the closest to a dinosaur. So close, in fact, that there is research underway to reawaken dormant, ancient genetic traits to make them appear more dinosaur-like. It’s called the ‘chickenosaurus’ project.
“If we’re working with chicken embryos and chicken genetics, we are working with dinosaur embryos and dinosaur genetics.”
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Geneticists can manipulate genetic traits to suppress a chicken’s feathers, or regrow claws or scales. As for teeth, it turns out birds can’t make enamel. They can make tooth buds, but that’s it. Scientists would need to make a transgenic bird, meaning a bird with the DNA from another species, such as a mouse.
“You wouldn’t get a full velociraptor again, but you might get something that’s a lot less bird and a lot more extinct dinosaur,” Larsson said.
“We’re not really talking about reverse-engineering chickens to make dinosaurs. We’re actually saying let’s just engineer a genome to make something that looks a lot like a dinosaur.”
There’s a difference between mutating genes and reawakening dormant traits, which is called atavism. And reawakening atavistic traits isn’t as simple as flipping a switch: genes are encoded into each other so that when you manipulate one, it will influence another. Larsson said it’s a constant test to see the consequences of activating a trait. His lab is working on reactivating the chicken’s ancient tail (it is not allowed to let the embryonic chicken hatch).
Larsson said that there are practical applications to being able to create something by altering the genomes, such as the work he and other scientists are doing with the chickenosaurus.
“Imagine taking a corn seed and planting it to grow a house. If we could actually engineer the genome in plants to grow shapes that we find useful, like house-shapes, or furniture shapes,” he said. “None of these are impossible, if we could fully understand how the genome works to create complex anatomy. It’s getting really sci-fi.”
So how long before we see the chickenosaurus?
Larsson said that funding for this kind of research is paltry in both Canada and the United States. In a perfect world, with no limit to funding, he estimates that they could make the chickenosaurus within five years. Instead, with the existing funding, it will take his lab the same time just to figure out the chickenosaurus’s tail.
While Jurassic Park will remain the stuff of science fiction, chin up: there’s still the possibility we’ll create scary-looking monsters developed from chickens.