KIDS ASK! Could Scientists Really Bring Back the Dinosaurs Like in Jurassic Park?

Here at HTHT, we teach a LOT of science, and the best part about it is feeding young scientists’ curiosity about this amazing world we live in!  Although our programs are jam packed with experiments, we make time to let our young scientists ask us whatever questions they’ve always wanted to ask a scientist.   

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing a special series of articles answering some of the most frequent questions that come up from our young partners in science.  Our question this week is:

Could Scientists Really Bring Back the Dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park?

In 2021, an article appeared in a British newspaper called The Cambridge Independent.  The headline was “CAMBRDIGE SCIENTISTS AIM TO BIONEGINEER LITTLE DINOSAURS.”  The article read:

Cambridge scientists are aiming to ‘bioengineer’ real-life little dinosaurs that could help teach us more about the Jurassic era – and even carry out tasks such as collecting litter.

Biotechnology start-up company DinoDNA revealed the first details of the extraordinary project today after securing £25million in investment.

It follows what they described as “extremely promising trials” of the technology.

Many details of the pioneering scientific work have been kept under wraps, but the Cambridge Independent understands that it involves rebuilding genetic code from fragments of DNA found in fossilised remains.

The hope is that the mini dinosaurs could be allowed to roam in certain enclosed areas, safely interacting with the public.

Dr. Jean Ome, chief scientific officer at DinoDNA, said: “It might sound like science fiction, but genetic engineering technology has advanced so rapidly that we are quietly confident our first dinosaurs will walk the Earth this summer.”

WHAT?! Did they just say dinosaurs will walk the earth this summer?!

WOW!! Sounds like a dream come true, right science friends?  Interacting with REAL dinosaurs?!  I get many questions from you about if scientists can really bring back dinosaurs like in Jurassic Park.  When I saw this article I got very excited!!  But then I looked at the date: April 1.  April Fool’s Day!  Sorry to say, dinosaur fans, the article was just a joke.  Could it really be possible to bring back dinosaurs using ancient samples of their DNA, just like in the Jurassic Park movies?  Well dino fans, if you’re hoping to meet a real live dinosaur one day, I have good news for you, and I have bad news.  Let’s do the bad news first, and end with the most awesome news!

There really are scientists who specialize in finding and studying ancient DNA. Scientists who do this are called molecular paleontologists or paleogeneticists. In the 1990’s, when this type of science was still fairly new, scientists extracted DNA from a bug called a weevil that lived at the time of the dinosaurs.  The weevil died trapped in tree sap that fossilized and became amber, much like you’ve seen in the movies.  It’s scientifically true that amber might be one of the very best places to find ancient DNA!  Amber is protective and helps stop the natural tendency of DNA to fall apart, or degrade, over a long time.  This is the real problem of why it’s very hard to find dino DNA.  DNA is fragile and very complex, and falls apart naturally even in our living bodies.  Some of your DNA right now, in your very own cells, might be a little ripped or broken, but just like all living things, you have wonderful processes happening in your cells that are always repairing your DNA and making it new and fresh!

This is a modern weevil. Like a lot of insects, the design hasn’t changed much since the time of the dinosaurs.

When an animal dies, that process stops.  So, once a body’s natural repair systems are no longer correcting rips and breaks, the degradation of DNA goes even faster.  To bring back a dinosaur, scientists would need the full genome, the complete set of a living thing’s DNA.  When lots of degradation happens over a long time, scientists might get little bits of the genome, but not the full set.  This is why they were excited about the little weevil from the amber!  There was more ancient DNA than they had ever found before.  Maybe they could put together a whole genome of this bug that lived millions of years ago?  And if they could do that, maybe they COULD get dino DNA?

NOOOOPE!  It turned out most of the ancient weevil DNA the scientists thought they had found was actually from what is called cross contamination, where other things get into a sample and change the results.  There was DNA from modern fungus, trees, and even a human skin cell in the sample.  There was not much true dinosaur-era DNA in the sample at all.  Over time, and with much more research among scientists around the world, it was concluded that DNA simply cannot survive for more than about 7 million years, even if it is in amber or frozen in the ground. 

So, science friends, this is the bad news about bringing back dinosaurs: even if we wanted to, we just cannot get a complete dinosaur genome from a fossil or a bug because DNA degrades over time.  It’s impossible.  But now for the good news!  Technology is advancing all the time, and there are some cool techniques that might hold the key to building the dinosaur petting zoo of your dreams!  Thanks to gene editing technologies like CRISPR, a chemical process which can activate or deactivate DNA in a genome, some scientists at Harvard University were able to activate some of the more ancient genes in the velociraptor’s nearest living relative, the chicken!  The result was a chicken embryo with a “dinosaur-like face” and teeth!  But this was just a small study and the Dino-chicken was not fully hatched.  However, since birds and dinosaurs are such close relatives, as CRISPR technology develops, if you see a headline about a “Dino-chicken” in the next few years, it might not be an April Fool’s joke but the real scientific deal!

Your best chance to see a dinosaur at this time is to just look out your window — birds and dinosaurs are much more closely related than you might think!

Nebreda, S.M., Hernández Fernández, M. & Marugán-Lobón, J., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now the most awesome news for last: just last year, in 2021, scientists in China were very surprised to find some intact cells in some very special dinosaur fossils from a place called The Jehol.  When they used a chemical called hematoxylin on these cells, they turned purple, indicating there MIGHT be some cells in the fossil that have a whole nucleus, which might contain several strands of intact DNA!  They think this might be possible because the cells went through an unsual process called silification, with parts of them being replaced by a natural, glass-like substance that protected them from degradation for millions of years.  But, this discovery is very, VERY new and will take many more years of research to understand if there is DNA inside, and if it really could be used to make a complete genome.  There could be something truly amazing revealed in the next few years, so keep your eyes on the science news, dino fans – except on April first.

Sources and Further Information:

The Cambridge Independent’s April Fool’s Day article:

A great explanation of the science of Paleogenetics and the problems of ancient DNA:

Famous Paleontologist Jack Horner on bringing back dinos with DNA and the Dino-chicken:

Full article on the creation of the Dino-chicken:

Video explanation of the Jehol cell discovery:

Full article on the recent discovery of the Jehol cells:

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