No Hope For Jurassic Park? Scientists Say DNA Is Too Fragile

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A new study that estimates the rate of DNA degradation in fossils casts serious doubt on our chances of ever having a real life Jurassic Park. The researchers looked at DNA extracted from the bones of an extinct bird between 600 and 8,000 years old and calculated the rate at which the fossilized DNA degraded. They concluded that, even under the best conditions, a DNA molecule wouldn’t survive past 7 million years, making us just shy of 60 million years too late in resurrecting T. Rex.

Previous reports of dinosaur DNA lasting tens of million of years have been met with skepticism. Many of these samples were found to contain more recent DNA mixed in with the life blueprints of long extinct species. But without a true reference – like the entire sequence of T. Rex’s DNA – scientists have been left to denounce or defend authenticity without definitive resolution. What was needed was a kind of general rule that set the limits on just how long a fossilized DNA molecule could remain intact. Now, apparently, palaeogeneticists at the University of Copenhagen and Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, have what it takes to put the question of DNA degradation to rest.

The team used 158 leg bones belonging to three different species of moa, giant birds native to New Zealand who were driven to extinction around 1,400 AD from over hunting. The bones, between 600 and 8,000 years old, had been collected from three sites within 5 km of each other. The proximity of the samples is important as it means that the fossils experienced very similar conditions during their incubation to enlightenment.

Morten Alentoft from the University of Copenhagen, extracting samples from the extinct bird, moa.

By comparing the amount of degradation in material of different ages, the researchers calculated that the DNA had a half-life of 521 years. If their figure is correct it means that in just 521 years half of the DNA in a sample would have degraded, another half in another 521 years, and so on. Bottom line: even under the best conditions, which the researchers say is at –5 °C, virtually all of the DNA would be gone in 6.8 million years. There’s still hope for the woolly mammoth, still romping the Earth until about 1700 BC, but as dinosaurs expired about 65 million years ago, it seems as though the closest we’re going to get to T. Rex is in a museum.

Different conditions, as I mentioned, can change the rate of degradation. When a cell dies its DNA is broken down by several processes including enzymes that snap its nucleotide backbone. Microbial attacks and oxygenation also destroy DNA. The most powerful degrading force over long periods of time, however, is thought to be water. The chemical bonds that hold DNA together will at some point react with water molecules and disintegrate. The mao samples examined in the current study were preserved at a balmy 13.1 °C. Scientists have yet to look at samples from frozen ares where these processes are kept more at bay, to see if the DNA degradation rate is similar or, we can only hope, much slower.

And, try as they might, the mao sample conditions were only similar to conclude that aging accounted for just 38.6 percent of the DNA degradation – over 60 percent was due to other factors. Because of this, some researchers aren’t quite ready to throw in the cloning towel. “Other factors that impact on DNA preservation are clearly at work,” Michael Knapp, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, told Nature. “Storage following excavation, soil chemistry and even the time of year when the animal died are all likely contributing factors that will need looking into.”

But even if the researchers are off, they would have to be off by a factor of ten for there to be any hope that dinosaur DNA could survive 65 million years in any kind of water-containing environment. What about amber? To date, amber has yielded a few ancient species. There have in fact been several insects so encapsulated that actually lived during the age of dinosaurs. Sadly, it seems as though amber is not the preservation marvel that might serve as a molecular time machine. Thus far attempts at recovering DNA from insects trapped in amber have yielded a few, spare fragments of DNA. But as Knapp noted above, more studies still need to be performed. Until the permafrost studies are carried out, I suppose we can still hold out hope for our Jurassic Park. Maybe fact will turn out to be stranger than fiction.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Geoffrey Shmigelsky October 17, 2012 on 9:00 am

    Thats just silly. We don’t need the original DNA to recreate the dinosaur. We just enough samples to read a species accurately. One we have that, with upcoming DNA printing technologies, we will just print the the chromosomes and clone those.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Geoffrey Shmigelsky October 25, 2012 on 12:34 pm

      I don’t understand. What are these samples that you’re talking about?

  • Improbus Liber October 17, 2012 on 10:20 am

    Once we understand exactly how DNA is turned into bodies creating dinosaurs will be an engineering problem. Just start with a lizard (for four legged dinos) or a bird (for two legged dinos) and you are half way there. Care should be taken with these animals. They did rule the world for hundreds of millions of years. That wasn’t an accident.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Improbus Liber October 25, 2012 on 12:42 pm

      Except we don’t have the information yet on coloring, skin surface, and soft tissue details. Putting the brain together correctly could be a major problem, particularly how do you program their instincts? We don’t even know what the T.Rex used those tiny arms for, yet they lasted much longer than expected if they were just vestigial, so there must have been some kind of purpose, lost in that brain. We don’t know what the blood was like, or even which ones were warm-blooded vs. cold-blooded, and what kind of bacteria lived in their guts helping digest their food.

      We might be able to fabricate a living animal that has the shape of a dinosaur, but I don’t think it would ever function or behave like a dinosaur would.

      If we did bring back a dinosaur with their immune system, they might get wiped out immediately the first time they’re exposed to a modern flu virus or the like. I think the modern world is more of a danger to them than they are to us (unless we bring back ancient diseases as well).

  • chlitto October 17, 2012 on 6:15 pm

    @jurrasic park comparrison, the dna in the movie didn’t came from a fossil… just listen to mr dna 😀

  • Guido October 28, 2012 on 10:36 pm

    Is the DNA actually degraded our just not recognizable by pcr? People used to say that a lot of things couldn’t be done. I suspect that some new technique will make Jurassic DNA recovery possible. Why is anyone taking these guys seriously?

    • Peter Murray Guido October 30, 2012 on 8:30 am

      Both: ancient DNA gets chemically modified so that it’s no longer accessible with PCR, but the bigger problem, the one these researchers are addressing, is that the DNA simply disintegrates over time. They become a jumbled alphabet soup with fragments so short that, even if you could sequence them, you couldn’t put them back in any sensible order. Seems believable to me, but I really, really hope they’re wrong.
      And maybe, just maybe there is a very small handful of relatively intact molecules mixed up in that alphabet soup. Maybe our isolation techniques will be so incredible in the future we can hand pick the longest strands and piece them together.