Upon the release of the recent blockbuster movie 2012, my colleague at the American Museum of Natural History, Neil deGrasse Tyson, sent out to all of the curators at the museum a list of talking points concerning the lack of "reality" of the premise of the movie. Neil is an astrophysicist with a great reputation as a communicator of science, as demonstrated in his many appearances on PBS, but I was immediately puzzled by the need for Neil's pre-emptive strike against a silly movie about the geological and astrophysical demise of our planet. Then I remembered a similar situation I found myself in a decade or so ago, when the second Jurassic Park movie was in production and near release. Our genomics labs at the AMNH, about three years earlier, made the claim to have successfully extracted a small piece of DNA from a termite embedded and preserved in amber. Not having read the book or seen the original movie, I wondered: what connection, if any, might this work have to Jurassic Park?
As it turned out, everything! The premise of Jurassic Park (if you happen to have been in a coma for the last 15 years), comes from author Michael Crichton's mastery of suspending disbelief. The story was about the reanimation of dinosaurs from DNA isolated from amber preserved insects that had bitten and fed on dinosaurs. All of a sudden, I found myself inundated with phone calls from reporters of all kinds asking about the feasibility of the premise of the book. While we had reported the isolation of DNA from a long deceased organism, we had not gotten anywhere near the fulfillment of the premise from Crichton's pen, made equally vivid by the movies based on the books through Steven Spielberg's cinematic flair. As responsible scientists, we patiently explained to the media that we wouldn't be seeing dinosaurs prancing around Central Park anytime soon. However, the questioning by the media became so intense and anticipatory of a positive answer, that I was often times openly frustrated. One reporter was so persistent with the hopes that it could be accomplished that it prompted me to finally respond to the reporter: "Yes Jurassic Park could happen … and monkeys could also fly out of my butt." (To explain: back at that time, this was a phrase made popular by Mike Meyers of Wayne's World and Saturday Night Live.) This comment did not endear me to the Public Relations Department at the AMNH.
While dealing with the press was frustrating, we also realized that this interest in the book and movie was a golden opportunity to teach. Often times it is impossible to get the public even remotely interested in what we do as scientists and here was a situation where the intense interest in the potential science actually became annoying. And so, in anticipation of the release of the second Jurassic Park movie in 1997, David Lindley and I wrote a book titled The Science of Jurassic Park and The Lost World. As publishers are wont to do, a subtitle was added to the book: "Or How to Make a Dinosaur." They added this subtitle because my co-author and I were clear throughout the book that neither dinosaurs nor any organism would be reconstructed in the near future from its naked DNA and the publisher felt that the negative response on our part would hurt the sales of the book.
In the book, we focused mostly on the scientific issues raised by the premise of Jurassic Park. For instance, the amber we had worked on at the AMNH in 1993 was from Miocene deposits in the Dominican Republic. Any self respecting geologist would recognize right away that this deposit is only 30 to 35 million years old, meaning that the amber we had worked with was way to young to yield dinosaur DNA because dinosaurs had all gone extinct 65 million years ago. Ironically, the scenes from the Jurassic Park movie where the amber fossils are discovered are also from the Dominican Republic and also incapable of having any dinosaur DNA in them (unless, of course, one considers birds dinosaurs, which actually one should). Right after we published the book, reports started to come out of other labs of older and older DNA fragments being isolated from older amber. Counter to that, reports came out of the British Museum of Natural History that claimed all of the previous studies on amber were faulty and not valid. This latter work prompted most labs to stop working with samples from amber, and to hold to the idea that DNA older than 30,000 years could not be retrieved from fossilized tissues, whether it be in rocks or amber. Ancient DNA studies instead focused on subfossil remains (remains not mineralized or amber preserved) less than 10,000 years old. To date, the oldest subfossil to yield DNA is between 100,000 and 30,000 years. Whether amber preserved fossils will yield up DNA is still debatable, but scientists as a matter of practice have focused on much younger samples.
Our second talking point to debunk the Jurassic Park premise usually rested on the general inability, when working with "ancient" tissues, to obtain enough high quality DNA to reconstruct a genome. And if it were possible to obtain even enough small fragments, it would be computationally impossible to reconstruct, or "assemble" as the genomicists put it, an entire genome. Here, I have to admit, we were wrong. Our suggestion was made well before the announcement of the first draft of the human genome, let alone several recent publications using "next generation" sequencing methods. Our book was finished in 1996, and coincided with Craig Venter's suggestion that shotgun sequencing and assembly of small fragments was the way to go when sequencing a genome. More recently, the 454 and Solexa "next gen" approaches have revolutionized genome level sequencing. It is now possible to assemble genomes from relatively small fragments of DNA, especially if another closely related species is available as a scaffold upon which to do the assembly. The announcements coming from the Max Planck Institute concerning the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the announcement of the sequencing of both Venter's and James Watson's genomes are evidence of the power of these "next gen" sequencing techniques.
The third talking point was that even if we did get a whole genome, the insertion of this genome into an egg to get a developing embryo was impossible. We also questioned the ability to produce cross species embryos using a surrogate species to provide the egg for development. We were partially wrong on this claim too, as several cross species cloning and surrogacy examples exist. In fact the book was published just after Ian Wilmut and colleagues announced the birth of Dolly, a sheep cloned from somatic tissues. Perhaps the most prominent of the advances in this area after Dolly concerns the birth of Noah, a baby Gaur. Gaurs are extinct in nature and Noah was born from the application of Nuclear Transplantation experiments using frozen, stored Gaur tissue and a cow as a surrogate mother. Noah died soon after his birth, but is still regarded a success story in this area of research. Even though success stories exist for this area of research, I would still suggest we are far from being able to inject "naked DNA" into a surrogate egg and have significant development occur.
The fourth argument we would use is that there would be nowhere to keep the beasts. We called this the ecological catastrophe problem and used Barbados, an island big enough to have substantial enough vegetation to support the number of dinosaurs mentioned in Jurassic Park, as an example of what might happen. We predicted that a severe ecological collapse would occur even on an island as big as Barbados, and that this might be the most important scientific point to consider in the entire scenario. Crichton and Spielberg did away with the ecological catastrophe problem by having Ian Malcom, the mathematician of the story (played wonderfully by Jeff Goldblum), babble about chaos theory. This problem is bigger than just chaos theory though, as how we treat our environment is immensely important. An entire discipline in science has emerged around the pertinent subject of conservation biology. One of the most important subjects that conservation biologists concern themselves with is what they call "naturalness". Naturalness refers to the state of the environment that would be there without the overt human activity we have seen in the past two centuries (or perhaps, before Columbus came to the New World, or perhaps even prehuman civilization). Reintroduction in the real world is an attempt to recreate naturalness in one of these contexts. It seemed strange to us to even attempt to recreate naturalness as it existed in the Cretaceous. Why not instead worry about the species we have driven to extinction while humans have been the predominant organisms on the planet - not necessarily in reanimating them, but making sure other species don't suffer the same fate. We suggested that the billions of dollars that might be spent to create a Jurassic Park would be better used buying land for conservation preserves.
Our final talking point was always an ethical one. We pointed out that just because a technology is there, it doesn't necessarily mean it should be used. The fallacy of the "progress marches on" attitude was our main point. Scientists, we suggested, have a duty to consider the ethical ramifications of their work. If some new technology is developed and we go wild using it, we place everyone at a disadvantage. We can always say that scientists are good at self-policing these kinds of things, but the kinds of ethical questions that are arising from the modern technology have outpaced the knowledge and social experience of scientists. The impact is so extreme that, in my opinion, cogent ethical decisions can only be made by taking a broad ethical assessment approach involving experts from the many areas of science, philosophy, social science, economics and other disciplines.
As scientists, we hope that our work has an enduring impact on science and society. The Science of Jurassic Park episode of my career actually has had a huge impact on how I view science and the world. I look at the opportunities created by the scientific silliness of a well crafted story like Jurassic Park as a great educational opportunity. When the public has an interest in something like dinosaurs and it opens up an opportunity to teach something, as scientists and educators we need to grab that bull by the horns and use it to the utmost.
I also learned that the general public often gets swept away by what scientists do. They are sometimes dazzled by the technology so much that their imaginations run wild. In general, most of the lay public want to see "monkeys fly out of our butts," but part of the job of being a scientist is to ensure that the public understands our science.
Finally, I learned some hubris about science and society from thinking about the feasibility of Jurassic Park. All of the scientific arguments that Jurassic Park won't work pale in comparison to the ethical arguments. Not considering the ethics of our science before doing it is like putting a 65 million year old dinosaur in Central Park.
Rob DeSalle, PhD, is a curator in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Invertebrate Zoology and co-director of its molecular laboratories.