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Will We Ever Be Able to Clone Dinosaurs?

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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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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]


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