These days, we live under constant threat of our lives turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. Which one? It’s hard to say and the ridiculous circumstances that we might face are always changing. One day it’s Terminator, then it’s Contagion, then, without missing a beat, we’re back to Independence Day. Out of all the ridiculous film plots this could possibly spiral into, though, I know which one I’d pick: Jurassic Park. Yeah, unequivocally, it’s got to be Jurassic Park. The body count is low, there’s little catastrophic destruction, John Williams absolutely crushes the score, and dinosaurs are awesome. While you won’t wake up tomorrow and find a pack of cloned raptors running around your backyard, every dream has to start somewhere and a group of researchers recently claimed to have found dinosaur DNA preserved in fossils.
The international team of Chinese and US paleontologists reported their findings in the journal National Science Review. In the article, the scientists say they discovered possible cell nuclei and chromosomes preserved in the cartilage of baby duck-billed dinosaurs (Hypacrosaurus stebingeri) dating back approximately 75 million years. In the paper, the team says they found “microstructures morphologically consistent with nuclei and chromosomes in cells within calcified cartilage.”
Researcher Alida Bailleul of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who led the research team alongside American paleontologist Mary Schweitzer, says she discovered exquisitely preserved cells in calcified cartilage in the skull fragments of the baby duck-billed dinosaurs. Two of the cartilage cells were still linked together consistent with the end of the process of cell division. One of the cells showed structural features morphologically consistent with chromosomes. Bailleul says:
“I couldn’t believe it – my heart almost stopped beating.”
Testing for the presence of DNA indicated that some of the original DNA may have been preserved. The standing scientific consensus is that DNA can last a maximum of 1 million years so finding 75-million-year-old dino DNA, it would be, as they say, big if true. Bailleul says:
“These new, exciting results add to growing evidence that cells and some of their biomolecules can persist for a long time. They suggest DNA can be preserved for tens of millions of years, and we hope this study will encourage scientists working on ancient DNA to push current limits and use new methodology in order to reveal all the unknown molecular secrets that ancient tissues have.”
Of course, scientists always have to ruin all the fun. Bailleul says that even if these findings are proven and scientists have a stash of 100% genuine dinosaur DNA, no one will be cloning dinosaurs anytime soon. She says:
“Here we have probably fossilized remnants, very minute amounts of fossilized dinosaur DNA, but that is a hypothesis at this stage. And the original dinosaur DNA might be transformed chemically during fossilization.
No one really understands what happens to DNA in material so old, but our study encourages more research in ancient DNA to understand the processes of DNA fossilization.
Our data suggest some DNA may still be preserved in these dinosaur cells, but it will never be possible to recreate a dinosaur. Once a species goes extinct, it’s extinct forever.
Never say never. At this point, I’m pretty sure that if there’s even the slightest, slimmest, most outside probability of doing something incredibly stupid, someone will try it. And they’ll probably succeed. Human beings are never any smarter than when we’re trying to screw something up.