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How To Build A Dinosaur

The Science Of Jurassic Park and The Lost World or, How To Build A Dinosaur, Rob DeSalle and David Lindley, Basic Books, 1997, ISBN 0-465-07397-4, 194pp, hardcover.

The cover carries a small notice that “This book was not prepared, approved, licensed or endorsed by any entity involved in creating or producing the books or movies JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD” of the release of the book was on the eve of the release of THE LOST WORLD which is currently in the process of making large sums of money for Mr. Spielberg.

By the way, the new movie is not, in my opinion, as good a movie as Jurassic Park. The first movie was actually a very good movie despite its commercial success and critical disclaim. It followed the classical formula: idyll, foreshadow, terror, reprieve, terror. Lost World has a simpler plot; it tosses you immediately into the middle of a nightmare which lasts for the whole movie. That’s all right; the public has asked for dinosaurs; the movie delivers dinosaurs. And there is something piquant about the thought of a good mother Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But aren’t these movies just fantasies, scientific impossibilities papered over with glib double talk? Aren’t they? Or is it possible? Could we create dinosaurs? This book takes a careful look at the real science of Jurassic Park. The answer? Maybe not. We can’t do it now – it’s too expensive and there is too much that we don’t know. Maybe. The technology is improving rapidly, getting faster and cheaper. The things that we don’t know? We know what it is that we don’t know and the researchers keep researching…

The book starts with amber. Remember the amber mine in the beginning of JP? Wrong location. In the movie the mine is by a river bank. Amber mines in the Dominican republic are up in the hills. Wrong date. Dominican amber is 25-35 million years old. Try New Jersey. New Jersey has 85 million year old amber; they’ve found a fossilized mosquito in an 85 million year old piece of NJ amber.

Fine, we have some amber of the right age with a mosquito in it. All we have to do is suck out the ancient blood and get the DNA out of it. Right? Wrong! Extracting ancient DNA is a tricky business; there is DNA floating all over the place and you need very elaborate cleanroom techniques to avoid contamination. Okay, we do the clean room trick. Now we’re set, right? Nope, the whole idea doesn’t work. What is the first thing a mosquito does with blood? It digests it. Even if it gets trapped immediately in the amber there is still plenty of time for the dino DNA to break down. It takes very special circumstances to preserve DNA; being in the gut of a mosquito doesn’t cut it.

Is the end of the story? No, it turns out there is a much better alternative. Insects aren’t the only thing that get trapped in amber. Sometimes animals rub against trees, leaving little bits of flesh and hide behind which can get sealed up in tree sap. [Amber is fossilized tree sap; it is very good at preserving ancient life because the amber seals the the ancient life off from anything that would break it down. It doesn’t preserve it perfectly, however.]

So let us say that we get a little bit of preserved flesh which might be from a dinosaur. There is a lot of DNA in it. Now our problems begin. First of all we have to extract the DNA. The book goes into the details of how this is done. Unfortunately the DNA will be degraded, broken up into little fragments a few hundred base pairs long. The genome is several billion base pairs long. We’ve got to piece these little fragments. millions of them, together to get the whole genome. This is not going to be easy.

But it can be done. Maybe. We know the drill already. It involves millions of samples kept in clean room conditions, some very fancy bio-technology (which is explained in layman’s language), and very heavy duty of computers to do pattern matching. Using today’s technology it would cost billions of dollars and take decades to do. This project is much more formidable than the human genome project which is not a trivial undertaking in its own right. So maybe not today. John Hammond doesn’t have that much money.

We probably won’t be able to piece the whole genome together. As the movie says “it’s full of holes”. Unlike the movie we won’t piece it together with the DNA of a frog. We’ll use current day archosaurs, birds and crocodiles. What’s worse we’ll probably have to sequence their DNA to do the matching. John Hammond had better really have a lot of money.

Let’s say that we’ve pieced together the whole genome from our sample. We don’t know what it’s from but there is an easy way to find out. We just grow one and see what it turns into. Er, how do we do that?

The basic idea is simple. You take the dino chromosomes and implant them into the nucleus of a fertilized egg cell, replacing the original DNA. There are a few catches though. There always are. A cell and its DNA go together; the chemical workings of the cell depend on the DNA having the right genes to go with the existing biochemistry. Having the wrong DNA is like having a dictionary in a language that you don’t know.

Dinosaurs laid eggs. Eggs are packed with all sorts of nutrients and chemicals supplied by the mother that help guide the developing animal through the development sequence. An ostrich egg, for example, doesn’t have the right stuff to grow a baby dinosaur.

So no, right now we can’t do it. We can’t produce the egg to put the DNA in. Nature knows how to do; we don’t. We don’t know enough about how developmental sequences work, how zygotes turn into babies. But we’re learning so maybe some day…

There are lots of other problems. What do you feed a baby dinosaur? What about diseases? Many dinosaurs were social animals. How do you socialize a dinosaur?

This is a pretty good book. It’s well written and is not too demanding for the scientific layman. In the course of reading it you will learn a good deal about modern bio-technology, about dinosaurs and evolution, and about little gaffs in the “mathematics” and “science” in Jurassic Park.

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This page was last updated May 27, 1997. It was updated and moved October 17, 2008