Monday, March 18, 2013

Jurassic Park 4

Our best guess at what Deinonychus looked like.

Jurassic Park 4 is scheduled to hit theaters on June 13, 2014, so this might be a good time to have a little heart-to-heart discussion with Mr. Spielberg on a few technical details. It’s been 20 years now since Jurassic Park first came out in theaters and paleontologists have learned a great deal since then. 
   Even though the appearance and behavior of dinosaurs is largely speculation, there are a few things that could be updated. From preserved specimens showing quill knobs, we know that Velociraptor had feathers, probably colored black, white and rust brown. And based on their size, those dinosaurs should be called Deinonychus.
   Crichton’s central idea was that the amber which preserved the mosquito also preserved the dinosaur blood from contaminants and harm—a simple idea which made for a compelling story. But there are definitely issues with this. You can’t get dinosaur DNA from a dead mosquito trapped in amber. After sitting in a chunk of resin for millions of years there is going to be mixing of the mosquito’s DNA and the DNA of whatever it fed on and anything else trapped in the amber. Even if it could be done, there’s no way of knowing what kind of animal a mosquito had bitten. How many would Hammond have to go through before finding one that had actually bitten a dinosaur? Not to mention how would extinct plants get cloned since mosquitoes don’t eat plants.
A 70-million-year-old T. rex
fossil has yielded soft tissue.
   There’s a better way. One of the biggest developments in paleontological research in the last two decades has been the discovery of soft tissues preserved in fossil bone interiors. These bones come from the badlands, and are excavated using sterile field techniques and without protective polymers and glues to keep contaminants from entering the bone interiors. The fossils are then taken back to a lab where the mineral components are dissolved in baths. If the dinosaur bones were truly permineralized then the entire fossil would basically dissolve in solution. But that didn’t happen when the first lab tests of this kind were conducted back in the early 2000s. After the mineral components had dissolved away, there was spongy, squishy, soft stuff left over. Paleontologists had discovered bits of tissue, blood remnants and marrow from their samples. This was absolutely unheard of when Crichton wrote Jurassic Park. Even though it’s not yet possible to retrieve 70 million year old DNA, this method is much closer to reality than sucking out dinosaur blood from a fossilized mosquito. If you want a park with a triceratops in it, just head out to the Badlands, find some triceratops bones, and mine them for their soft tissues.
   The other big change for Jurassic Park would have to be the DNA gap-filling. No more frog DNA. They would need to use bird DNA, preferably a more primitive species like an emu or ostrich. There has been a lot of genetic work done on chickens lately, so chicken DNA might work as well because we know so much about it. In a movie, it would not be much of a stretch to say that we have control over the chicken genome, and thus could reduce it back to a stem state, where the combination of the dinosaur DNA with the trimmed chicken genome lets you build a dinosaur.
   Not only could you clone dinosaurs with the soft tissue story line, but marine dinosaurs, too. Giant ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs—there was plenty of scary stuff in the ancient seas. For the purpose of a movie, anything that’s fossilized could be fair game. There are plenty of big, scary extinct animals to choose from...

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