Is It Possible To Create A Real Jurassic Park With Dinosaur DNA?

The movie used dino DNA combined with frog DNA to bring dinosaurs back to life. But could such an experiment work with science we possess? Scientists have tried and the results are very interesting.

Spielberg’s sci-fi action thriller keeps folks on their toes to this day. The life-like mega-sized dinosaurs excite viewers and the movie’s plot uses very real science to explain how the dinosaurs were brought back to life after being wiped off the planet so long ago. 

What most of us don’t realize is that this theory of jurassic rebirth is far from fiction! Modern science has taken huge strides towards making it a reality and this article explores the what and how of this sci-fi reality. 

Vintage Jurassic Park tshirt Design Vector

Jurassic Park, the movie (Photo Credit : creativetaibur /Shutterstock)

Before seeing where we are in terms of progress, we should zoom into the science of it a bit more. The topic that holds the whole story together is the concept of genetic engineering. 


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What are genes?

Here is a question.

How does a baby plant know that its leaf shape needs to be pointy at the top and not round? How does it look exactly like that of its parent? How does it know its flowers need to be large and pink?

This kind of information is passed on from parents to their offspring in genes. Genes are like puzzle pieces that, when assembled together, make an organism, while defining its function and form. It is present inside each of our cells, snuggled within the nucleus in thick X-shaped structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome is made of a twisted ladder-like thread called DNA. DNA stands for the chemicals that it is made of—deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA has many portions, which are individual pieces of information called genes.

During the natural process of reproduction, the female egg nuclei and the male sperm nuclei fuse to form the baby. This fusion means a mixture of puzzle pieces. That is why we see certain features of both the mother and father in their children.

Diagram of chromosome and DNA structure, Molecular biology, vector illustration eps10

The unit of cellular information: GENES (Photo Credit : Ody_Stocker/Shutterstock)

Why do we need to know about genes?

These puzzle parts are sometimes deleted by nature and skipped when being passed on. One of the best examples is the gene needed for having a tail. Many primates (monkeys, lemurs) have tails, but over the generations, apes started losing the need for a tail. This resulted in a change in the genes and the eventual loss of our tail.

This is what we call evolution. Through evolution, each species of organism has developed a different set of genetic puzzle pieces that make the unique picture of that organism. Evolutionarily related animals, like humans and apes, or horses and zebras, have similar genetic puzzle pieces, and spotting these similarities allows scientists to determine connections between living things.

Evolution of primates

Evolution of primates (Photo Credit : flickr)

The knowledge of the function of each genetic puzzle piece is useful when we apply it to changing an animal/plant for a particular benefit. The branch of science that specializes in this gene manipulation is called genetic engineering.

How do we make changes in our genes?

We now have the technology to manipulate genes artificially. The idea is to modify genes in a single cell (usually the germs cells from which babies are made) that can then give rise to an organism. Once the changes are made, the resulting successful organism is called a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Genetic engineering is done in several ways for plants and animals. 

Method 1

One way of modification is by enhancing or switching off genes. Certain genes are identified and are either disabled or magnified, based on the desired results. This is the most popular mode of creating GMOs, some of which are probably in your house right now!

The technique of disabling genes is called gene knockout. For studying genes, we can switch off genes and see how that influences the resulting GMO. One example is a mouse with the gene for hair growth knocked down.

A laboratory mouse in which a gene affecting hair growth has been knocked out (left), is shown next to a normal lab mouse

Knockout mouse-Bald v/s Normal mouse-Furry (Photo Credit : Maggie Bartlett/Wikimedia commons)

Alternatively, genes responsible for insect repulsion in a plant could be identified and enhanced. The resulting GMO would be more tolerant of insects and pests, without requiring the use of pesticides. Most vegetables and grains we eat are real-life examples of such modification.

Method 2

Another method of modification is by adding a new set of genes to a nucleus.

Generally, DNA is added to a host cell by using microinjection. This is common for animals. Biolistics is a cool way of coating small particles of gold with DNA and then shooting it into young plants. 

What’s the progress so far?

For plants, a bacterium with the extra gene is allowed to infect the plant, so that each cell in the plant receives the new genes. For animals, the best way is to modify embryo cells. When the baby is just formed, the few cells that are present can be isolated, modified, and allowed to develop. This idea is the backbone of the Jurassic Park movies.  

For those who haven’t watched the movie, frog embryos are modified by adding dinosaur DNA to them. The dinosaur DNA is obtained from blood that was trapped in a fossilized mosquito. The DNA has some gaps that are filled with frog DNA to complete the puzzle.

Is the movie’s experiment possible?

Developmental biologists experiment with genes to study the inter-relations of different life forms. While the movie did relate amphibians of today with the reptiles from a bygone era, the chances of a successful mutation (modification) are still slim to none. A mutation is successful only if it can develop into a fully functional and structural organism. Many different conditions are essential for this to occur. 

An experiment based on the one from the movie was conducted in real life. Dinosaur fossils were collected and the innermost part of the bones was used to extract DNA. This dinosaur DNA was studied and enough genes were acquired to be added to another embryo for a successful mutation. Unfortunately, the DNA was very fragile and the genes broke apart before any puzzle piece could be constructed of it. 

young-cheerful-scientists-working-palaeontology-genetics

Hunting for DNA in the fossils (Photo Credit : mentalmind /Shutterstock)

All the pieces of a dinosaur puzzle would be required to recreate those majestic reptiles. Given that most of it is lost and gone, we can only find pieces and fit them together with their successors. Alternatively, we can switch on certain genes that might have been disabled by nature long ago due to evolution.

The movie also got the closest animal ancestor of the dinosaur wrong. Instead of a frog, chickens are believed to be the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs.

To study the evolution of dinosaurs and birds, scientists switched on genes for tails and teeth in chickens, two genes that were switched off by nature in modern birds, but are believed to have been functional in dinosaurs. The growth of tails and teeth was a success in baby chicks, but unfortunately, it affected the backbone and skull as they grew and led to the chick’s eventual death.

 

t rex with rooster head vector illustration

Chicken Dino possibility (Photo Credit : Adam Studio 75/Shutterstock)

However, if they had grown up, they would have looked scarily like the dinosaurs we have seen in the Jurassic Park movies for years! Looks like we might not need real dinosaur DNA after all!

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About the Author

Krithika P has completed an M.Sc. degree in Zoology from Madras Christian College, Tambaram. She has a BSc in Chemistry Botany and Zoology from St Joseph’s college, Bangalore. She is currently teaching high school kids. She loves to experiment; her lab in the school is one of her favourite places, closely followed by beaches and islands! She is a nature-friendly nerd and loves to nit-pick on all things biology.

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