Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. They’re big, they’re bad and they’re back.
Like all the best science fiction, ‘Jurassic Park’ seemed excitingly possible at the time. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, but nearly three decades after Michael Crichton originally penned the tale, is science moving in the direction where it could become reality?
Back in 1993 when the original ‘Jurassic Park’ movie roared its way onto the big screen, there was talk of the feasibility of recreating dinosaurs. A mosquito full of dino blood, locked into amber for 66 million years, seemed likely enough to the man in the street to not dismiss the premise of the film.
‘Jurassic Park’ began the belief that maybe a dinosaur zoo could happen. Spoiling the sport were scientists who revealed that DNA could not last anywhere near that long. It has a half-life of 521 years, meaning that half the bonds of the bases within it will be destroyed every half millennium and that, in theory, the last vestiges of a DNA chain will have decayed after 1.6 million years. One of the researchers behind these numbers was Dr David Penney, who said: “Unfortunately, the ‘Jurassic Park’ scenario must remain in the realms of fiction.” So, in that slightly arrogant and irritating way that people say these days: end of!
Or is it? Certainly it is at the moment, but DNA technology is constantly on the move. It seems very unlikely that any DNA still exists, although what nature has buried under 66 million years of rocks may still hold surprises – perhaps there are certain conditions that are DNA-friendly deep under the earth. However, even if we assume this is not the case, it is not necessarily the end of the road. What we can do with DNA depends on our ability to read, edit and write it.
None of this is easy as it is at a molecular scale. Human genes are parts of the DNA chain that do a certain function or contain specific information, but a human has over 20,000 genes and approximately three billion individual DNA links. Even in my hugely oversimplified model it is clearly a challenge to be able to accurately identify every link in this double helix structure, but advances in DNA sequencing allows us to do just that. It is a long and laborious process but since human DNA was first fully sequenced in 2003 the techniques have continued to become faster and more accurate.
More complex is editing DNA. This is the ability to cut out sections of DNA and paste it into other sections. This was the premise behind the original ‘Jurassic Park’, when the dinosaur DNA captured by the amber-bound mosquito was supplemented by the DNA of frogs and birds. Within the scientific community there is much excitement about CRISPR-Cas9, a process that was adapted from a naturally occurring gene-editing system in bacteria. This new technique could move on the speed and accuracy of genome editing.
Finally, we have DNA writing. It is currently possible, but complex and slow. For some reason, perhaps because it only has a mere 12 million or so DNA pairs, yeast has been chosen as the ideal first subject.
Collaborations from around the genetics world are trying to get a packet of yeast together, perhaps frustrated with the current proliferation of flatbreads. It hasn’t been easy, but has been achieved if not yet tested and proved the real deal. Jef Boeke from New York University, who led the international team, said: “You really can construct something that’s completely new.”
This is the cutting-edge of genetics and yet our lump of synthetic yeast falls well short of a dinosaur, not just because of complexity, but because we already have the DNA sequence for yeast; we have no dinosaur blueprint from which to work.
What would need to happen is for DNA not just to be replicated, but to be understood. Of the tens of thousands of human genes, we only know what 3 per cent actually do. The other 97 per cent remain something of a mystery. When we can positively identify what every bit of DNA does, then we can possibly start to piece together all the parts that would make up every single part of a dinosaur’s physical and mental capabilities.
Dr Karim Gharbi, leader of the Genomics Pipelines Group at the Earlham Institute, comments: “It’s a bit like trying to reprint a book with missing pages and words, you’re going to have to guess what these words were. You could look at the descendants of these organisms, but you also know that evolution has made lots of changes since dinosaurs turning into birds, so you will need to reverse-engineer evolution to go back to the original sequence in dinosaurs, which is a very difficult thing to do.”
So, in short, it can’t be done yet - but it is not completely inconceivable that genetics and our understanding of DNA will develop sufficiently so that we may be able to build dinosaurs, even if we don’t have the DNA. In fact, in the latest episode of the ‘Jurassic World’ franchise, we are introduced to a new dinosaur, Indoraptor – a hybrid genetically engineered by scientists to be brighter and badder than those that have gone before.
‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ will be in UK cinemas from June 6 2018