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.

Search for Extraterrestrial Life

For decades now we have been actively searching for evidence of life not of Earthly origin. Our motivation is curiosity, both scientific and otherwise. As tools and techniques have improved, we are getting much closer to our goal, although failure to find life elsewhere would not be probative. It might mean that we aren’t looking in the right place or even that we haven’t recognized the signature of life because we are blinded by our preconceptions.

What is lagging in this effort is a serious analysis of the potential consequences of success. Scientific curiosity has ethical and practical limits. The search itself is probably harmless and is at worst a questionable investment of time and resources. But what if we find life, not just fossils of primordial life but actual living beings? It is very unlikely, some would say virtually impossible, that we would discover intelligent life where we have the current capacity to investigate. Anywhere within our solar system is within practical range, but none of the candidates seem likely habitats for evolved life. Beyond that the immensity of space and sparsity of viable habitats greatly limit feasible investigations. At best we might detect recognizable signatures of life, like the presence of free oxygen on a planet in the habitable zone. This would be intriguing but hardly definitive.

But our solar system harbors several candidates for simple life forms, most notably amongst Jupiter’s moons and even conceivably in subsurface Mars.

Europa

We could, and mostly likely will, mount unmanned probes to test these possibilities in the not too distant future. So, back to the question at hand. What if we find life? If we do, it will likely resemble familiar Earthly life in most respects. Why? Because that’s what we would be seeking. Sufficiently foreign life forms would be unrecognizable unless they walked up to our probe and knocked on its door. So, what would be likely consequences to us back on Earth?

Initially, I expect denial and outrage amongst some in the non-scientific community. Life elsewhere challenges many religious beliefs. Personally, I find that odd because surely God could create life anywhere and even divinely inspired scripture could have been deliberately tailored to the intellectual limitations of its receivers. Even for the non-religious, the existence of alien life can be frightening, even if it takes only simple forms. For one thing, we know that simple forms can evolve and that evolution may have occurred beyond our current detection capabilities. Is this a threat, if not now perhaps in the foreseeable future? A special concern is if our probe is sufficiently versatile that it can return samples to Earth for detailed investigation. Should we do this even if we can? What are the risks and are they acceptable for the benefit derived?

My point is that scientific investigation has a life of its own. Once it progresses sufficiently down a path with some evidence of success, stopping it may be very hard. So we should make a serious attempt to answer the questions now. I am no Luddite, but I do harbor concerns that we may not have yet evolved sufficiently to react sensibly to discovery of extraterrestrial life.