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Will We Ever Be Able to Clone Dinosaurs?

Lost-World.Com
Lost-World.Com

Jurassic Park turns 20 this year, and today, a 3D version of the film hits screens nationwide. We asked Brian Switek, a science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, to weigh in on the movie's basic premise—that dinosaurs are cloned using DNA taken from mosquitoes.

When I was a little dinosaur fan, all I wanted was a pet dinosaur. An Apatosaurus would have been choice—big enough to be impressive, but not especially likely to eat me. But that’s never going to happen. As much as I hate to say that science will never solve a particular question or problem, the barriers to a real life Jurassic Park are insurmountable.

Time is the critical factor. The last of the non-avian dinosaurs—the undeniably awesome ones that haunt museum halls and our dreams—died out 66 million years ago. That’s so distant from us that we can’t even really comprehend how long that is, and we lost whatever chance we might have had at cloning dinosaurs within a relatively short time following the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

This is not the dinosaur goo you’re looking for…

You may have heard that paleontologist Mary Schweitzer and colleagues have extracted some soft tissue remnants from the Cretaceous dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus and the hadrosaur Brachylophosaurus. These claims have been controversial, but they cannot be discounted. Schweitzer and others have built a startling argument that in exceptional cases, fragments of original dinosaur protein may have survived to this day. But that’s not what we need to clone a dinosaur. The starting point of any dinosaur resurrection exercise is DNA. Unfortunately for paleo nerds such as myself, DNA has a relatively short half life. There’s virtually no chance of ever recovering dinosaur genetic material.

For years, researchers have known that DNA starts to break down almost immediately after an organism perishes. Even in exceptionally-preserved animals from more recent times—such as frozen woolly mammoths found in Arctic permafrost—the genetic material of the creatures has unraveled into fragments of what once was. But it was only late last year that University of Copenhagen palaeogeneticist Morten Allentoft and coauthors figured out what the rate of DNA degradation is.

The disintegration of “Mr. DNA”

By looking to bones of recently-extinct avian dinosaurs—specifically, the 8000- to 600-year-old bones of giant, flightless birds called moa that once strode over New Zealand—the geneticists calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. That’s longer than researchers expected, but not nearly long enough to allow us to ever obtain Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops DNA (much less far more ancient dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus and Dilophosaurus). Even under ideal conditions wherein bones would remain dry and chilled at a temperature of 23 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, the entirety of a creature’s genome would be obliterated within 6.8 million years, or about 59 million years short of the last non-avian dinosaurs.

It’s really as simple as that. No DNA, no revived Velociraptor. (I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good or bad thing.) And the whole “dinosaur blood from amber” would not have worked, either.

Let’s assume for a second that the fossilized tree sap and insect within were exempt from biological reality and actually contained DNA. Drilling through the amber to get to the insect’s gut contents would be an exercise in contamination—mashing genetic material from the tree, insect, and dinosaur gunk together.

But for the sake of the movies, let’s stretch our suspension of disbelief a little bit further. Let’s say that through magic or other equally impossible methodology, scientists are able to extract dinosaur DNA from ancient bone or other source. That is just the very first step in getting anywhere near recreating a Spinosaurus.

Parasaurolophus Puzzle

Any ancient dinosaur DNA would have come in dribs and drabs, just as with Ice Age mammoths, Neanderthals, giant sloths, and sabercats that have yielded genetic tidbits. The trick is identifying those pieces and figuring out where they belonged in an animal’s complete genome. That requires a baseline acquired from a close relative—modern Asian elephants work for mammoths, and our own genome for Neanderthals. But living avian dinosaurs are so far removed from Pachycephalosaurus and kin that their utility in figuring out the arrangement of non-avian dinosaur genomes would be quite limited. And that’s to say nothing of the pseudogenes and non-functional parts of the genome. We haven’t even completely sequenced the genome of our own species—we’re still at about 99 percent of the functional part—so we’re quite far from fully reconstructing an extinct genome.

Jurassic Park recognized this difficulty. That’s why the fictional engineers of the book and film took the boneheaded move of mixing frog DNA with dinosaur genes to create complete animals. And I don’t say “boneheaded” because of the plot twist consequence of “unauthorized mating” among the dinosaurs. By the time Jurassic Park came out, paleontologists were confident that birds were a surviving lineage of dinosaurs—a fact beautifully supported by a slew of fuzzy, fluffy, feathery dinosaurs that started popping out of the fossil record in 1996. Patching Velociraptor with bird DNA would have made a lot more sense, especially given the fictional paleontologist Alan Grant’s virtual obsession with pointing out how bird-like Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were.

A Raptor By Any Other Name

So a Velociraptor or Tyrannosaurus genome wouldn’t be a feat of resurrection, but reinvention. Even if it were possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA, we’d have to reverse engineer the dinosaur genomes according to our best possible estimates of their anatomy and behavior. More hurdles abound.

Creating a complete DNA profile doesn’t get you anywhere if those genetic cues can’t be translated into a viable embryo that is going to grow to term. Understandably, Michael Crichton and the film adaptations of his work totally glossed over this point, especially since researchers can’t clone birds. It’s easy enough to say “We’ll stick an artificial nucleus inside an ostrich egg and the rest will take care of itself,” but that ignores the essentially biological interactions that actually constitute a living, growing organism. Since birds have outsourced the growth of their offspring outside the body, there may not even be a way to successfully clone a bird, and so there would be no method by which we could bring dinosaurs back even if we had all the requisite raw materials. It’d be like assembling all the materials for a cake and turning on the oven, but having no clue about the cooking chemistry of how to achieve the desired, tasty result.

There will never be a real Jurassic Park. But I’m not especially sad about that. Our favorite dinosaurs may never come back to life in a literal sense, but paleontologists are finding ways to extract ever-more details about dinosaur lives from what remains of the creatures. Science fuels our speculation, allowing dinosaurs to still live in the place where fossil facts and imagination meet. We still have our dinosaur dreams.  

Brian Switek tried really hard not to be a killjoy in this post. So much for that. He enthuses about fossil finds on his National Geographic blog Laelaps, and in his books Written in Stone and My Beloved Brontosaurus, out this month. “Brontosaurus” was slain by science over a century ago, yet the great dinosaur’s ghost is still with us. In My Beloved Brontosaurus, Brian follows the legacy of the cherished sauropod to explore how science has changed dinosaurs over the past thirty years, and has transformed familiar Mesozoic species into creatures more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, to be closer to the petrified inspirations of his writing.

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Authorities Want This Roadside Bear Statue in Wales Removed Before It Causes More Accidents
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There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

Wooden bear statue.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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