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Jan 20th 2020

Dino-Sized Dilemma: Could Genetically Engineered Creatures Evade Extinction?

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Science and movies are inextricably linked. Sometimes their relationship is rocky — astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had lots to say about the depiction of gravity in “Gravity.” Other times it’s a win-win: The first “Jurassic Park” film spurred a resurgence in both paleontology fun and funding.

But is it possible that science on the silver screen could even hit the streets? Beyond “Star Trek”-like smartphones and VR experiences inspired by movies like “Total Recall” and “The Matrix,” could we ever go bigger? Could genetically engineered creatures drive the creation of a real-life “Jurassic Park”?

Let’s dig in: Is extinction really permanent? Or are we just not trying hard enough?

Life Will Not Be Contained

It’s a warning in the film that proves prophetic: As expected, dinosaurs escape their imposed sterility (and physical confines) and start terrorizing human visitors. But what about the science behind creating a sauropod in the cinema? Was “Jurassic Park” anywhere near the truth?

Yes and no. As noted by the BBC, most of the film’s massive monsters are actually from the cretaceous period, not the Jurassic. But in terms of actual dinosaur recreation, genetically engineered species designed using preserved DNA isn’t too far off the mark.

The problem? DNA doesn’t hold up well over time. Recreating a dinosaur requires its entire genome, which means finding DNA. Recreating dinosaurs demands DNA from 66 million years ago, but the oldest sample on record lands near the 1 million year mark. And while Live Science pointed out that 50 million year-old blood has been found in mosquitoes, all traces of DNA were gone.

There’s also the little problem with splicing in frog DNA to cover the gaps and open the world’s first live dino theme park. Doing this wouldn’t give you a powerful T-Rex or terrifying velociraptor — according to Scientific American, you’d end up with a “frogosaur” that might not make it past the embryo stage.

So, to sum up: It’s not all bad cinema science, but it won’t make you a dinosaur.

Let’s Make a Dinosaur!

Maybe there’s another option.

Best bet? Start with a dino’s closing living relative — the chicken — and work backwards. While dinosaur DNA stubbornly refuses to last more than a million years, the genetic container of your average chicken could be changed to more closely resemble their terrifying relatives.

Dubbed the “chickensoraus” by Dr. Jack Horner — the paleontologist who consulted on all four “Jurassic Park” films — the move from common barnyard animal to genetically engineered exemplar is well underway. Already, his team has manged to shift genetic priorities in chicken embryos to create snouts instead of beaks, and he notes that “wings and hands are not as difficult.” Full-fledged tails may be more problematic, but Horner still has hope for new dinosaur hybrids within the next five to 10 years. With substantial progress being made in IVF protocols and processes, it may soon be possible to culture and create chickensorauses (chickensoraii?) at speed and scale.

Efforts are also underway to reverse-engineer creatures closer to our moment in history; Harvard scientists are hard at work trying to bring back the woolly mammoth by combining mammoth genome data and elephant cell cultures using CRISPR genome engineering techniques. So far, the Revive and Restore project reports that “mutations for mammoth hemoglobin, extra hair growth, fat production, down to nuanced climate adaptations such as slightly altered sodium ion channels in cell membranes have already been engineered into fibroblast cell lines.” While mammoths won’t walk again tomorrow, they could in your lifetime.

The Difference Between “Could” and “Should”

It’s a classic line in the film and it still rings true today: Even if we could bring back the dinosaurs, should we?

Probably not. First is the problem of place — as noted by Dr. Susie Maidment in a recent Natural History Museum piece, “an animal that died out naturally, perhaps 150 million years ago, is not going to recognize anything in this world if you bring it back.” What does it eat? Where does it live? Opting for a “Jurassic Park,” zoo-like structure isn’t a great idea because of the potential danger involved and the evolution of animal rights and ethics concerns.

There’s also a question of value. While solving the puzzle of dinosaur DNA reconstruction is certainly science-worthy, beating back extinction just for the sake of it is short-sighted. What role would dinosaurs play in human life? Would they simply become experimental puzzles, or could they be tamed for human use? Where would ownership of this methodology lie — and what happens when it’s inevitably used for less-than-noble purposes?

Here, a better approach may be using movie-inspired science to reverse the human-caused extinction of more recent species. Nature has already demonstrated this is possible with the Aldabra rail, a flightless bird that lives on the Aldabra Atoll. Originally appearing more than 130,000 years ago in fossil records, the rail became extinct when sea levels around the bird’s habitat first rose and then fully submerged the Atoll. Twenty-thousand years later the sea levels fell, a descendant of the bird reappeared and became flightless again, effectively “re-evolving” itself back into existence.

Using known genomes of species like the passenger pigeon or the Tasmanian tiger, there’s a path between extinct animals and new generations using a combination of IVF and carefully controlled environmental conditions. While it’s not exactly easy — or fast, as the Revive and Restore project shows — there’s potential here for genetically engineered creatures that beat extinction events and enhance Earth’s biodiversity.

As for Jurassic dinosaurs? They should probably stay parked.

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