Dinosaurs dominated Earth for over 140 million years before having their reign ended by a colossal asteroid impact.
Is it possible to bring these long gone reptiles back from the dead and, if we could, would we really want to?
Dr Susie Maidment, a dinosaur researcher at the Museum, explains just how difficult it would be to resurrect ancient reptiles Jurassic Park style.
Is Jurassic Park possible?
The classic concept for dinosaur resurrection starts with a DNA-filled mosquito that has been preserved in amber for millions of years. But is this a scientific possibility or strictly resigned to fiction?
Amber is tree resin that has fossilised due to high pressure and temperature, conditions experienced when spending thousands of years covered by layers of sediment. Over time the resin hardens to form a gemstone that has been coveted by humans for thousands of years.
The dinosaur DNA that could be preserved inside amber-entombed blood-sucking insects is of interest as DNA contains the genetic information for the growth and function of all living things. Could ancient DNA recovered from amber could serve as a genetic blueprint for recreating the extinct animals?
Susie says, 'We do have mosquitos and biting flies from the time of the dinosaurs and they do preserve in amber. But when amber preserves things, it tends to preserve the husk, not the soft tissues. So you don't get blood preserved inside mosquitos in amber.'
This means that Jurassic Park is probably not possible exactly as Michael Crichton wrote it. But the search for dinosaur DNA doesn't end there. Blood residue has been found inside ancient insects - they just weren't found in amber.
'A couple of years ago a paper came out about a mosquito from the Eocene - that's around 45 million years ago, so around 20 million years after the dinosaurs died out. The mosquito was preserved in lake sediments and had a red pigment in its abdomen. When they tested that pigment chemically they discovered haemoglobin-derived porphyrins.'
These are the breakdown products of haemoglobin, which is the red protein that carries oxygen around the body in the blood of almost all vertebrates.
'The idea that we may one day find a mosquito or biting fly from the Mesozoic with some parts of the blood still preserved is not outrageous,' says Susie.
Blood in dinosaur fossils
When under specific circumstances blood does preserve, it doesn't mean that scientists will find DNA in it. So even if a dinosaur's blood was found inside an ancient insect, an opportunity to recreate the reptile from it isn't guaranteed.
In 2015, Susie and her colleagues discovered what they interpreted to be red blood cells inside a Cretaceous dinosaur fossil bone.
'We don't think it is from modern contamination. The blood cells have nuclei and you don't find those in mammals, so it must be a reptilian red blood cell. We compared it with red blood cells from birds and it showed some morphological similarities.
'We sectioned the cells using a focused ion beam, which is like a really high-powered, ultra-small knife and we stained the nuclei to see if there was any DNA - but we didn't find anything.
'Even if you find blood or soft tissue, you don't necessarily find DNA.'
Ancient DNA has so far been recovered from permafrost, as well as from subfossils - bones or body parts that have not yet fossilised.
But DNA is vulnerable and breaks down rapidly. Sunlight has negative effects and water can also accelerate deterioration. Modern contamination is also a problem. DNA has to be handled under strictly controlled conditions.
Currently the oldest DNA to have been found is around one million years old, although it is possibly younger. DNA 66 times older would have to be found to get to the age of dinosaurs.
How to make dinosaur DNA
If dinosaur DNA were found, what happens next? If you work at Jurassic Park's genetic engineering facility you simply combine it with frog DNA and recreate an extinct reptile.
'In Jurassic Park, they say that they found fragmented DNA. They identified where the holes are and filled them with frog DNA. But the problem is that you don't know where the holes are if you don't have the whole genome,' explains Susie.
A genome is the complete set of DNA of a living thing. Without the full genome, it would be impossible to tell which parts of the DNA have been found and therefore impossible to fill the gaps to build a whole animal.
'But if you did have the whole genome and you were going to fill the holes in fragments, then you definitely wouldn't do it with frogs, because frogs are amphibians. If you were going to do it, you'd use bird DNA, because birds are dinosaurs. Or you might do it with crocodile DNA, because they share a common ancestor.'
Could we clone a dinosaur?
DNA breaks down over time. The dinosaurs went extinct around 66 million years ago and with so much time having passed it is very unlikely that any dinosaur DNA would remain today. While dinosaur bones can survive for millionsof years, dinosaur DNA almost certainly does not.
But some scientists continue to search for it-just in case.
So it looks like cloning a dinosaur is off the table, but an alternate way to recreate the extinct animals would be to reverse-engineer one. This involves starting with a living animal and working backwards towards ancient reptiles, attempting to reverse at least 66 million years of evolution.
Susie explains, 'You could take a chicken and genetically engineer it so it has teeth or a long tail. But even if you do, it's not a dinosaur, because it was reverse engineered.'
Resurrecting extinct animals
However, recreating dinosaurs or any other extinct animal, can throw up some ethical dilemmas.
'You could be interested in the genetic basis for various living things or in sequences of correlated characters - for example if you grow teeth, do you automatically grow claws as well? But an animal that died out naturally, perhaps 150 million years ago, is not going to recognise anything in this world if you bring it back.
'What is it going to eat when grass hadn't evolved back then? What is its function, where do we put it, does anyone own it?'
An attempt to resurrect dinosaurs presents many caveats scientifically and ethically - making things to put in zoos or amusement parks like Jurassic World likely isn't the answer. So for now dinosaurs are probably going to remain safely in the past. But using genetic engineering to bring back extinct animals might be considered reasonable in some circumstances.
'I think there is potentially an argument for bringing back something that we humans made extinct. So if someone was going to bring back the passenger pigeon, then I think you could justify that. They were living in a modern ecosystem and could fit in.'
Jurassic Park may not have got dinosaur resurrection quite right, but nevertheless it did make one particularly worthy point, Susie concludes:
'As Dr Malcolm says in Jurassic Park - "just because you can, doesn't mean that you should."'
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Could dinosaurs survive today? ›
Variables such as temperature, food sources, and oxygen levels are all factors that might impact dinosaur survival. Because dinosaurs lived in much warmer climates millions of years ago, many experts doubt they could even survive today.Can dinosaurs come back in 2050? ›
The dinosaurs went extinct around 66 million years ago and with so much time having passed it is very unlikely that any dinosaur DNA would remain today. While dinosaur bones can survive for millions of years, dinosaur DNA almost certainly does not.How far are we from bringing back dinosaurs? ›
Even with new collection technologies, under the best possible conditions, the limit of DNA survival is perhaps 1 million years. The last of the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, so Jurassic Park likely won't become a reality anytime soon.Could humans coexist with dinosaurs? ›
It's impossible. The DNA has changed so much, even just in the 68 million years, since teeth were lost in the, you know, living bird lineage of dinosaurs, cause teeth were actually lost in dinosaurs, like at least a dozen times. And the beak was evolved, you know, teeth lost really beak evolved many times.Can you see dinosaurs 2050? ›
The Adam Smith Institute, a British think tank, has released a new report predicting what life will be like in 2050. According to the report: "Several species of dinosaur will be recreated, making their appearance on Earth for the first time in 66 million years.Why can't we bring back dinosaurs? ›
Unfortunately, dinosaurs probably cannot be cloned and brought back to life. Their DNA is too old since dinosaurs have been extinct for over 65 million years. Any genetic information is not likely to survive for one million years, so the dinosaurs are simply too old to be cloned.Will we ever find dinosaur DNA? ›
This suggested that these bones were not 90 million years old since the half-life for these biomolecules is, at max, about 1 million years. Incredibly, scientists have now found original dinosaur DNA and chromosomes!Are any extinct animals coming back? ›
Unfortunately, DNA slowly degrades, and once it's gone completely, there's no way to recover it. Researchers believe DNA has a half-life of 521 years, so after 6.8 million years, it's believed to be completely gone. That's why species like dinosaurs have virtually no chance of de-extinction.When was last dinosaur alive? ›
Dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago (at the end of the Cretaceous Period), after living on Earth for about 165 million years.Are dinosaurs gone forever? ›
For more than 150 million years, dinosaurs dominated Earth. They were so successful that other animal groups -- mammals included -- had little chance of playing anything more than secondary roles. Then, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs vanished from the world forever.
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The possibility of a Jurassic Park-like recreation is far from possible, says a paleontologist. There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have been fascinated by the world created in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and others who are petrified by the sheer possibility of it.Will there still be animals in 2050? ›
"Our research suggests that without big changes to food systems, millions of square kilometres of natural habitats could be lost by 2050. Nearly 1,300 species are likely to lose at least a quarter of their remaining habitat, and hundreds could lose at least half. This makes them far more likely to go extinct," he said.Will humans go extinct like dinosaurs? ›
The scientific consensus is that there is a relatively low risk of near-term human extinction due to natural causes. The likelihood of human extinction through humankind's own activities, however, is a current area of research and debate.