- - Monday, October 24, 2011

In “Jurassic Park,” the 1991 novel about a wildlife preserve for dinosaurs, the late Michael Crichton raised the specter of the resurrection of extinct species using preserved DNA specimens. It seemed far-fetched two decades ago. But we live in an era now when yesterday’s science fiction is today’s banner headline on the Drudge Report.

With Tuesday’s Blu-ray debut of the “Jurassic Park” movie trilogy, the time is right to ask: How far has science advanced toward realizing the underlying premise of the franchise?

Well … nobody said it was going to be easy.

DNA usually only survives for a few thousand years in the fossil record, and finding older samples is an extremely rare occurrence. Professor John Horner, the paleontologist who served as technical adviser for the “Jurassic Park” series, believes that if long-dead creatures are ever revived, the most likely candidates aren’t dinosaurs but more recently extinct animals like the dodo or mammoth.

“In the case of mammoths,” he says, “we do have living elephants, which are their close relatives, so reviving them might be possible in the not too distant future.”

**FILE** Bill Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at Chicago's Field Museum, dusts the teeth of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as "Sue" on display at the museum on May 12, 2010. (Associated Press)
**FILE** Bill Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at Chicago’s Field Museum, ... more >

Indeed, scientists have even speculated that we might be able to “regrow” dinosaurs by fiddling with the DNA of their modern descendants, such as birds, although this seems a remote prospect at present.

More immediate success might be obtained on a smaller scale, including a kind of reverse “Jurassic Park” scenario, where scientists use ancient DNA evidence to ascertain that a species thought to be extinct is, in fact, not so.

This occurred most recently in New Zealand where a kind of storm petrel thought extinct since 1850 was discovered to be alive and well.

Also in New Zealand, the plumage of the extinct giant bird known as the moa has been reconstructed using DNA extracted from 2,000 year-old feathers. The DNA was taken from the shaft and barb of the feathers, something not previously thought possible.

Another creature that could be “revived,” albeit far less glamorous than the moa, is the humble bacterium.

When a human body is preserved after death, the DNA of its microorganisms, including disease-causing pathogens, can often survive intact alongside traces of the human DNA, preserved within human tissues.

Biomolecular scientist Mike Bunce, who heads the ancient DNA research lab at Australia’s Murdoch University, thinks that this kind of DNA is essentially a genetic time capsule.

“It means we can go back and see what a disease looked like in the past,” he says.

Diseases mutate much faster than human DNA does, so even going back a decade or two can reveal a lot about how a disease has evolved.

As Mr. Bunce puts it, “the human genome is in a constant arms race with its pathogens.”

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