Jurassic Park was a box office hit when it made it to the big screens in 1993. Although undoubtedly a great movie, most people felt it was a little far-fetched that science could bring an extinct animal back to life. In recent years, however, it looks more and more likely that some more recently extinct animals such as the mammoth may be able to return to the world. Now, one scientist seems to have found a way to resurrect the greatest prize of all: a dinosaur.
The principle of resurrecting an extinct species is fairly simple: modern techniques require the genetic code of the desired species and an egg cell with its own DNA removed. Combine the two and find a suitable mother for the egg to grow inside, et voilà. In practice there are a lot of problems. Finding the complete genetic code of species like dinosaurs which have been extinct for so long is not simple. The more recent it died the better, but in the tropics the moisture and heat damages DNA, so the chances of reviving the Dodo are slim. Only the animals that died in a cold climate in the last few thousand years stand a good chance of being resurrected. This leaves us with creatures like the mammoth, and our close relatives the Neanderthals.
It looks more and more likely that some more recently extinct animals such as the mammoth may be able to return to the world.
The next complication is ethics – many people are strongly opposed to this sort of research, feeling it is wrong to ‘meddle’ and play God. Consider our prehistoric relative the Neanderthals: obviously intelligent creatures, being resurrected into a new and alien world would likely be very hard on the individual. Mammoths, on the other hand, are a better choice, and we likely drove them to extinction so we have more of a moral reason to bring them back.
Currently at least two teams are working on returning the mammoth. One in Japan claims they can do it in four years. Who knows – there may be mammoths in zoos in the not-too distant future.
Now, let’s get back to dinosaurs. The chances of finding their DNA in fossils is very unlikely, and mosquitoes in amber isn’t the answer, but there may be another potential source.
The principle is very difficult but progress has already been made: scientists have been able to retain the dinosaur features for significantly longer than is natural.
Just after the skeleton of a chicken embryo forms, the bird has two arms with claws, a long bony tail and teeth in its jaws. Every bird starts off like their ancestors: dinosaurs. These features are removed throughout development, but if this process could be overridden then in theory, scientists could recreate a dinosaur.
The principle is very difficult but progress has already been made: scientists have been able to retain the dinosaur features for significantly longer than is natural. A lot of genetic alteration would be needed and it wouldn’t be exactly like the original dinosaurs, but as our understanding of genetics improves, so will our chances of returning dinosaurs to the world, 66 million years since the end of their reign.
Returning lost species is seen as unethical by many, impossible by some and is hugely difficult to those who try to do it. Research into this controversial field continues, and bit by bit Jurassic Park grows ever closer to realisation.
Image: Loren Javier via Flickr