Primal Numbers – Tyrannosaurus Next

The dinosaurs are back, roaring across a screen near you with the upcoming release of Jurassic World. It’s film number four in the Jurassic Park franchise, the original blockbuster that sparked eager speculation about the odds of bringing dinosaurs back to life. The film still thrills us 20 years on, but we all know by now that creating dinosaurs from ancient DNA is impossible. Or is it?

According to some researchers, the closest we’re going to get to a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus?or any other kind of dinosaur?are the skeletons in a museum. That’s the likelihood according to Dr. David Penney, an amber expert at the University of Manchester. As The Telegraph reports, researchers there tried to ?extract DNA from insects in subfossilised copal, the harden [sic] resin from trees that is a precursor of amber.? They were unable to, even in samples as recent as 10,000 years old. That means there’s even less of a chance of finding intact, usable DNA in samples that date to millions of years ago.

?So,? as Dr. Penney told The Telegraph, ?unfortunately, the Jurassic Park scenario must remain in the realms of fiction.?

Then again, maybe it doesn’t. Dr. David Hone, a palaeontologist and lecturer in ecology at Queen Mary University of London, reminds us in a recent article that ?new discoveries are constantly extending the length of time we know that DNA can survive.?

One example is the genetic data recovered from a horse that roamed the earth over 700,000 years ago. Exciting stuff, though not nearly close enough to the 65 million year shelf life we’d need to get our hands on viable dinosaur DNA.

But in December 2011, a team from Japan’s Kinki University and the Siberian Mammoth Museum discovered some bone marrow cells from a mammoth–cells that ?might one day help resurrect the ancient beasts.?

Science is still a long way from the dinosaur sanctuary depicted in Jurassic Park, but close enough that we need to start taking a serious look at the ethical questions such a feat would raise. Just because we can breed a triceratops or woolly mammoth one day, does it mean that we should? Who would have the right to decide how the creature was kept or whether it was exhibited to the public in a zoo?

And what about the animal’s overall health? We’ve known for decades that species from ants to orcas lead complex social lives. Were dinosaurs highly social creatures, and would breeding a single animal be akin to keeping a dolphin alone in a tank? We simply don’t know, and the only real way to find out would be to study a group of them in as natural a setting as possible.

We aren’t there yet, but It’s astonishing to think that research could one day turn that theory into reality. Even Dr. Penney admits that nothing’s impossible. ?Never say never,? he said in this interview with The Telegraph. ?Technology and science has progressed so much that it may happen one day.”

So don’t take your eye off that vibrating glass of water too soon. It might just be a T. Rex on the loose.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.