The Real Science of Jurassic Park

Throughout my life I have periodically binged on some particular author’s works, devouring everything he wrote. As a child, my targets included Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. In high school, as I recall, there was Aldous Huxley and in college both Nathaniel West and the mysterious B. Traven. Much more recently I zeroed in on the hard science fiction of Michael Crichton, many of whose novels spawned popular movies, amongst which is Jurassic Park.

With this meandering introduction, I come to the topic at hand, the science of Jurassic Park. You could hardly have avoided seeing one or more of this series of movies and now there is a fourth coming out in a few days. The original ones base their science on the plausible use of DNA extracted from dinosaur blood in amber-entrapped mosquitoes. The idea is theoretically sound but it would really only work on a more recently extinct animal, like the wooly mammoth, since DNA degrades over time. The latest movie is updated with the real progress in transgenic science using recombinant DNA technology. This produces modified organisms that combine the DNA from different genomes and has recently had remarkable success. For better or worse, this science really works.

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For example, inheritors of the Frankenstein mantle have created a chickodile (chicken with crocodile teeth), a spoat (goat whose milk contains spider silk), a fluorescent glofish (zebrafish crossed with a jellyfish), a dolion (dog/lion combination), and my favorite, the pouse (pig/mouse combo that is less polluting, if you know what I mean). The possibilities are endless. These examples have some practical or scientific value, but I foresee many more doing this just to see what happens. The required knowledge and equipment is not much more complicated than that found in any well-equipped college biology lab. And note that, as the spoat example shows, it isn’t even necessary that the combined animal sequences be genetically related.

It is almost certain that these hybrids are sterile, so that nightmares of new and perhaps dangerous breeds flooding the world are extremely unlikely. But then one recalls the prophetic comment by mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm in the first Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” So don’t be so sure.

The technical adviser on all of these movies, paleontologist Jack Horner, has written a scientific paper speculating on reverse engineering chickens into real dinosaurs using latent gene sequences actually present in the chicken genome. Most now believe that birds and dinosaurs are fairly closely related and probably share a common ancestor. At one time, in fact, it was thought that birds were simply evolved dinosaurs, which certainly made one look at our cute songbirds a little differently. However problems arose when this was examined in detail.

This science can lead to very useful results for mankind, meanwhile generating fodder for entertaining movies. However many fear unintended consequences. In fact, some labs have temporarily halted their efforts until safe protocols have been developed and tested. But the genie is out of the bottle and a new world is upon us.

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