Few stories have captured the imagination of readers and movie audiences alike than that of Jurassic Park. This classic tale originally sprung forth as a novel by Michael Crichton in 1990 and was adapted three years later in to an acclaimed movie directed by Steven Spielberg. In both the book and movie we follow paleontologist Alan Grant as he is given a private tour of billionaire John Hammond’s amazing new theme park – a theme park in which breakthroughs in genetic technology have allowed Hammond’s team to clone long-dead dinosaurs and other prehistoric life from recovered DNA. You may be tempted to ask if such a thing is possible in real life. Unfortunately, there’s a few problems that leave Jurassic Park firmly in the world of science fiction…
We’ll start with the basics – can you even recover a dinosaur’s preserved DNA? Sadly, no. Genetic material only has a half life of about 500 years or so, far short of the millions of years needed to get to the age of the dinosaurs. In the story’s defense, they do address this somewhat: in both the movie and the original novel the characters mention that gaps in the recovered genetic material were filled in using the DNA of related species, such as frogs. However, in the real world that wouldn’t be enough – after 65 million years there simply isn’t any DNA left to work with, no matter how well preserved they are. Here’s a video going into much greater detail.
There’s Nothing to Clone With
In the real world, cloning still relies on fairly traditional biological processes: your copied DNA needs to be in a fertilized egg from the same species (or at least, an EXTREMELY similar one) and that egg needs to be incubated properly. Jurassic Park managed to tackle the last part – in the movie/book elaborate nursery facilities are shown, and it’s believable that those facilities might be able to properly care for an incubating dinosaur egg. Where are those eggs coming from, though? Fossilized eggs aren’t viable, and a dinosaur’s closest living relatives are birds (more on that in a moment). In short, even if we could manufacture a working copy of dinosaur DNA we have no mechanism in place for actually growing it in to a living creature.
Dinosaurs Aren’t Giant Lizards in the First Place
Recent advances in paleontology have concluded that dinosaurs were much more closely related to birds than they were to lizards. In fact, scientists agree that most dinosaurs had feathers, and a feathered dinosaur tail was even recently found preserved in amber! What this means is that even if you did miraculously find a non-decayed sample of dinosaur DNA, and somehow found a viable egg in which to place it, what would come out is a goofy feathered creature more akin to a chicken than it is to the terrifying lizard-like monsters we see in the movie.
Fortunately for our safety, Jurassic Park is safely contained in the world of sci-fi. But prehistory lovers don’t need to despair – the commercial success of the films all but gauruntees that we’ll get to see our dinosaur friends wreak havoc for years to come.