22 years of science since original 'Jurassic Park' movie

Posted at 3:37 PM, Jun 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-12 18:33:44-04

When “Jurassic Park” stomped into theaters, it was a breakthrough in visual storytelling — the first to convincingly put dinosaurs on the big screen. For many, it was also an introduction to genetic engineering.

In 1993, the human genome project was recently underway and would be completed within 10 years. By the time a sequel came out in 1997, Dolly the cloned sheep was a celebrity.

Maybe cloning a dinosaur isn’t so crazy after all.

Many of the the science fiction concepts in “Jurassic Park” are now real, just not on a dino-sized scale. Today it’s possible to synthesize an entire yeast genome. In 2005, scientists resurrected the deadly 1918 Spanish flu virus.

That’s a far cry from a velociraptor, but it’s a start.

The biggest hurdle is finding the starting materials. Only fragments of dinosaur DNA have ever been recovered. A skilled carpenter still needs solid wood to work with.

“DNA is a very fragile protein. It breaks down very quickly,” said Joshua Miller, a paleobiologist at the University of Cincinnati. “The real likelihood of cloning a dinosaur is pretty darn small.”

That’s because fossils are not really biological material anymore. They’re mostly rock.

In the movie, gaps in dinosaur DNA are filled in with genes from frogs, which results in some unexpected problems with reproduction (life finds a way). In reality, the gaps in the code are enormous.

“Even if you found some DNA, you'd have to know what to compare it to,” said David Burnham, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute. “Do you compare it to an alligator or chicken? At least with a mammoth they have elephants.”

Scientists have recovered DNA from mammoths and Neanderthals frozen for tens of thousands of years. Dinosaurs have been dead more than 1,000 times longer than that. They went extinct 65 million years ago.

“We’re still a ways off from being able to bring back dinosaurs, but we are getting closer,” said Jennifer Kuzma, a professor in the Genetic Engineering and Society cluster at North Carolina State University. “But I think we’re approaching the ability to bring back animals that have gone extinct.”

That’s because genetic engineering technology has grown by leaps and bounds in 22 years. In the 1990s it was cutting edge to mix and match DNA.

“Now we can make it from scratch,” said Chase Beisel, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. “Twenty years ago that was a pipe dream.”

So is bringing back a dinosaur possible? Yes, Beisel said. He’s a Michael Crichton fan, after all.

“But the challenge for scientists is not the ability to re-code DNA but what to re-code it to,” he said. “It’s ridiculously complex and as you make changes there can be unforeseen problems.”

In the “Jurassic Park” novel, most of the dinosaurs don’t survive infancy. Their genes have bugs, like a computer program. They even had version numbers.

“The real question now is how you make rational genetic changes. The technology for doing that is years off,” Beisel said. “We can make those changes. We just don’t know what those changes can be.”

But is it ethical to bring back a long dead species? In the movie, Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) famously said that dinosaurs “had their shot.”

“It would be super cool — but I don’t think there’s a good scientific reason to do it,” Miller said.

There may be a rationale for a species where humans were responsible for the extinction. In that case, people may feel an ethical obligation to restore a lost species, or “de-extinct” it.

“Many of them are going extinct or already are. Genetics can bring them back or help them to survive,” Miller said. “There are lots of species that impact us in positive ways. That would be very powerful.”

There are also therapeutic uses.

“How we treat diseases, cure ourselves — everything from the food we eat to even a lot of the products we use are derived from biological origins. You could replace fossil fuels,” Beisel said.

Examples range from genetic gene therapies and treating diseases using engineered viruses to developing crops that are resistant to drought. It could reduce invasive species and protect others from diseases.

Genetic engineering can be used for a lot of good, Kuzma said. But even if scientists reach a point where they could clone a dinosaur, mammoth or even a human, they may need to stop and think whether they should.

“I think there’s time that some reflection would be warranted,” Kuzma said. “It’s walking toward the door of the technology but it’s not knocking yet. But that’s the best time to think about it.”

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.