The Jurassic Park franchise, like the dinosaurs it reanimates, won’t be ignored. Michael Crichton’s masterpiece makes a lot of cameos in academic papers. Still, it’s rarely the focus of true inquiry. It is, after all, kind of easy to dismiss. But Lauren Ammerman, a molecular biology Ph.D. candidate at Southern Methodist University, doesn’t want to be dismissive. This is why, as a senior at Baylor University, she authored an honors thesis about what happens when Jurassic gene editing meets the rewilding movement meets the ultimate alpha predator. She made herself — and this is truly awesome — an expert on what would happen if we brought back the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Inverse spoke to Ammerman, whose work reads like a potential sequel to Jurassic World, about how science and blockbusters can coexist.
Okay, I know we can’t actually resurrect the T. rex — for now. What’s holding us back?
We have one or two complete genes, but they’re not anything important, like dinosaur hemoglobin. And the information we do have is pretty badly damaged so, right now there’s not that much we can do about it. We don’t know enough about these decaying processes to reverse them and determine the original sequence. So the whole Jurassic Park idea of using frog genomes and reptile genomes to supplement it doesn’t really work because we don’t have anything to supplement. Dinosaurs are also actually physiologically different than the reptiles we have on Earth right now. We don’t have a good foundation to build on there.
I didn’t really have the chance to get into this in my thesis and I’ve never seen anyone mention it, but you also have this problem of ‘Okay, it’s in the cell, now what do we do?’ DNA is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s pretty strictly regulated by epigenetic mechanisms, processes that make DNA available or unavailable for gene expression. We have no way of knowing what key points turn it on or off.
I am going to pretend I did not hear all this. What would happen if we released a T. rex somewhere like Yellowstone National Park; it’s both a scavenger and a predator, and it is also obviously enormous. So on a scale of destructive to like … super destructive…?
The fact that it’s a scavenger and a predator was kind of a surprise, a recent development that changes the way we might see it interacting with the modern world. It would interact as an apex predator, but at a level we’ve never seen before because there’s nothing that matches its size. It wouldn’t just be at the top of the food pyramid, it would be in its own pyramid on top of that pyramid. It would probably be pretty disastrous. It would be too efficient, it would destroy ecosystems even in places that need a top apex predator.
So we’re not talking about reintroducing a cougar to the Rockies or anything like that.
People are pushing rewilding pretty hard, but there’s still not that much evidence that it really works. Wolves in Yellowstone National Park are a great example of something working, but if you think of the long geological timeline, it’s a very short blip in history.
Your thesis had a line about how these guys ‘should not be released in any proximity to civilization.’ Wouldn’t they roam? What does ‘proximity’ even mean here?
They could survive in a huge range of environments, whereas today most top predators just live in one or two environments but a T. rex could survive anywhere, so there’s really not a ‘too far.’ In South Africa, they still can’t build a fence that stops elephants from coming — take that, multiply it by 13, make it angry, and give it sharp teeth — yeah, it would probably be a disaster.
You mention Jeff Goldblum quite fondly in your acknowledgements, and Jurassic Park obviously crops up multiple times — was all this just borne of a tremendous love for the franchise?
Yes. If I got to meet Jeff Goldblum I’m pretty sure I’d cry. I love the book, but I also just love his character, Dr. Malcolm.
Does your scientific and academic knowledge about this stuff ruin any parts of the books or movies for you?
Not really. I have a huge respect for Michael Crichton. The breadth of knowledge there when you read Jurassic Park is pretty incredible. When he wrote the book, he based it off the most cutting-edge research that existed at that time, and I think it was incredibly well done. I still fall in love with seeing the velociraptors running around. I would love to have one with my cat. The only part I don’t enjoy is the Mr. DNA part at the beginning.
He’s basically that paper clip from Microsoft Word. But you’re willing to put up with even that for the wildlife?
I grew up loving dinosaurs, going to dinosaur museums and always dreaming about what it would be like to bring them back. Can we bring them back? Not today, not in the near future. But I think it’s naive to say a firm ‘no.’
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.