“Bingo! Dino DNA.”
With these three words, Jurassic Park created a cinematic spectacle unlike any other in American history. Nearly three decades after its release, Spielberg’s epic continues to dazzle audiences around the world and inspire sequel upon sequel.
Yet, another surprising aspect of the movie is also being revived as we approach Jurassic Park’s 30th anniversary: bringing long-lost species back to life. No, scientists aren’t proposing reviving dinosaurs — yet — but they are hoping to bring back other lumbering beasts from a bygone era using “de-extinction” technology.
Evolutionary researcher David A. Duchene tells Inverse that we won’t be visiting a real-life Jurassic Park anytime soon.
“Cloning or engineering will never create a dinosaur in the real way that the creature actually looked like and behaved in the past,” he says.
However, Duchene, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics, adds that the fictional technology at the heart of Jurassic Park is still relevant today. Intrigued? Let’s dive in.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Is de-extinction even possible?
In recent years, scientists have proposed reviving everything from the passenger pigeon to the Tasmanian tiger to the American chestnut (not exactly extinct but getting close). One of the main ways scientists plan to do this is using genome editing, which would involve modifying the genes of extinct species and combining their DNA with the genes of related living sister species.
“In 20 years, researchers are likely to have used genome editing to create organisms that are similar to extinct species,” Henry T. (Hank) Greely, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences tells Inverse.
Yet the massive ancient beast scientists have their eyes on now isn’t a dinosaur, but, rather, a woolly mammoth, whose grazing habits could be useful in restoring the Arctic tundra to grassland and indirectly combating the climate crisis, according to advocates. Last year, a Harvard geneticist and an entrepreneur announced a $15-million startup known as Colossal with the aim of using a gene-editing technology, known as CRISPR, to “de-extinct” the woolly mammoth.
But experts are skeptical.
“Gene editing alone falls way short of true de-extinction.”
“While partial de-extinction is very much feasible with modern technology, real full de-extinction cannot ever be achieved,” Duchene says.
For example, any revived woolly mammoth wouldn’t truly be an exact replica of the species, but, rather, a new elephant-mammoth hybrid species, since the process requires bringing together the DNA of a related living sister species — like the Asian elephant — with the DNA of a woolly mammoth.
“It is not the de-extinction of the mammoth; it is the genetic modification of an elephant you are creating an entirely new synthetic organism,” Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist working as a fellow at the Natural History Museum in London, told Inverse last year.
Additionally, Duchene says true de-extinction is not possible because of the “vast amounts of information” we have lost, including the environmental and biological factors that went into forming extinct species. His study found it was difficult to recover “significant chunks of DNA” that would be necessary for anything close to de-extinction.
“In short,” Duchene concludes, “gene editing alone falls way short of true de-extinction, and would rather create novel creatures that bring about a broad range of ethical matters.”
Can we bring back the dinosaurs?
So, if we’re already having trouble de-extincting the woolly mammoth, which may have survived up until 10,000 years ago, you might wonder how much harder it would be to bring back dinosaurs, right? After all, dinosaurs went extinct some 66 million years ago after the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) mass extinction event.
And you’d be right. It would be very difficult to recover enough genetic information about such long-extinct creatures to achieve de-extinction.
“The further back in time you go — and the more distant the living sister of your de-extinction target — the more information you lose,” Duchene says.
“DNA falls apart on its own after about a million years or so.”
Greely agrees, adding “Dinosaurs aren’t on the table [because] DNA falls apart on its own after about a million years or so.”
Basically, it’s super challenging to reconstruct ancestral DNA sequences of creatures that have been extinct for millions of years. Even if you manage to recover some DNA and genetically engineer a living creature that resembles a dinosaur, it will still technically be “wrong” or different from the real deal according to Duchene.
Recent findings have claimed to recover chromatin — a combination of proteins and DNA — as well as chemical markers of dinosaur DNA in bone cartilage, but that still may not be enough for de-extinction.
The scene from Jurassic Park explains how researchers extract dinosaur DNA from insects preserved in amber.
“Fossilized chromatin won’t give you what you need: the DNA sequence. No dinosaur DNA…no dinosaurs!” Greely explains.
Jurassic Park found a clever workaround, but extracting dinosaur DNA from a mosquito would probably be harder in real life.
“The idea that it would be preserved in amber was clever, but it turns out it doesn’t work,” Greely says. “People have tried to get DNA out of creatures embedded in amber with no success.”
The movie’s idea of using frog DNA to replace the missing dinosaur DNA isn’t bad, since it somewhat mirrors real-life de-extinction plans for the woolly mammoth, though instead of using elephant DNA to fill in the missing mammoth genes, scientists are using the elephant’s genome as a template for genetically editing mammoth DNA.
Both Greely and Duchene say it would make more sense to use avian DNA since birds are much more closely related to dinosaurs. But since birds diverged from dinosaurs somewhere between 150 and 200 million years ago, again, even if you could combine some dinosaur DNA with bird genes, it would be “nowhere near a dinosaur you would be bringing to life, but instead some other — probably quite miserable— creature,” Duchene says.
According to Greely, well-known paleontologist Jack Horner is trying to “reverse engineer” a dinosaur from birds — colloquially known as a “dino chicken” — by attempting to predict “what DNA sequences would lead to the traits we see in dinosaurs.” But those efforts still have yet to pay off.
“Maybe someday we’ll know enough about DNA to predict what DNA sequences are needed for all the relevant traits,” Greely says.
Is de-extinction research ethical?
Ok, so we probably can’t bring back the dinosaurs anytime soon, which likely averts any concerns of a real-life Jurassic Park run amok.
“The chances that a de-extincted species would run wild and cause great harm seem to be very close to zero,” Greely argues.
However, de-extinction research on other animals is likely to proceed full-steam ahead in the coming years, especially as the climate crisis and habitat loss are causing a global extinction crisis. But is it really the best use of scientists’ time and governments’ money to bring back long-extinct animals when many endangered animals need our protection right now?
“I think it would be a shame, and I suppose I’d say unethical, for money needed to preserve endangered species to be used instead for de-extinction,” Greely says.
Greely adds, “It would also be bad if the prospect of de-extinction were to lead to people letting endangered species go extinct because they “could always be recreated.”
For his part, Duchene says de-extinction would bring about “very few benefits” and thinks we should approach the subject differently, bringing us “not towards de-extinction but instead towards gaining an understanding about the past.”
If we studied the genetic evidence of extinct creatures with an eye toward understanding ancient animal diversity, then Duchene argues “we are bound to unleash vast amounts of knowledge about problem-solving in nature.”
Following Duchene’s approach, we might imagine a future where Jurassic Park isn’t a playground for dinosaurs, but, instead, a laboratory for research into the ancient past whose findings can help us protect the world’s biodiversity and advance a wide range of technologies to improve human well-being.
Such research may not be as fun or as terrifying as a T-rex chasing you into a forest, but it’s probably infinitely more useful for human society.
Jurassic Park is streaming now on HBO Max.