When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, one idea in particular caught the public imagination: could dinosaurs be recreated by by extracting DNA from insects preserved in amber? Some scientists initially claimed they could find DNA traces in amber that was 130 million years old, but doubts were soon cast on this finding.
Now scientists from the Faculty have sadly confirmed that the existence of DNA in amber fossils is highly unlikely. The team, led by amber expert Dr David Penney and coordinated by ancient DNA expert Professor Terry Brown, used highly-sensitive ‘next generation’ sequencing techniques – the most advanced type of DNA sequencing – on insects preserved in copal, the precursor of amber. They used two samples of copal, one that was less than 60 years old, the other that was about 10,000 years old. To everyone’s disappointment, both samples drew a blank. According to Professor Brown:
“In the original studies DNA amplification was achieved using the polymerase chain reaction, which preferentially amplifies any modern, undamaged DNA molecules that contaminate an extract of partially degraded ancient ones. This can give false positive results that might be mistaken for genuine ancient DNA. Our approach, using ‘next generation’ sequencing methods, is ideal for ancient DNA. It provides sequences for all DNA molecules in an extract, regardless of length, and is less likely to give preference to contaminating modern molecules.”
The team concluded that their inability to detect ancient DNA despite using such sensitive methods suggests that the potential for DNA survival is very poor. This raises significant doubts about claims of DNA extraction from fossil insects in amber many millions of years older than copal. Dr Penney said:
“One might imagine that the complete and rapid engulfment in resin, resulting in almost instantaneous demise, might promote the preservation of DNA in a resin entombed insect. However, this appears not to be the case. So, unfortunately, the Jurassic Park scenario must remain in the realms of fiction.”
This is not the only element of Jurassic Park’s science that is questionable. To read more about how Faculty scientists have undermined the Jurassic Park myth, take a look at Professor Matthew Cobb’s recent blog post: The University of Manchester says: “Jurassic Park is fiction”.