Dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years. Not a single dinosaur fossil preserves any part of the animal’s skin. That doesn’t stop scientists from dreaming about bringing dinosaurs to life, though. After all, what fan of Jurassic Park wouldn’t want to see a live Triceratops or a real Tyrannosaurus Rex? There’s one problem: DNA cannot survive that long.
The clock starts ticking as soon as an animal dies, and the DNA decays. After millions of years, the DNA strands become so damaged that they escape detection by genetic sequencing tools. Although scientists have some preserved dinosaur fossils, they don’t have any remnants of Dino-DNA. That doesn’t mean scientists have given up on finding ancient DNA.
The ABCs of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid)
DNA exists in all living organisms, including humans and dinosaurs. DNA is a set of instructions, and each cell contains a copy of the genetic information multiple times. A chromosome is a single strand of DNA, and a complete set of chromosomes make up an organism’s genome. DNA is the molecule that carries genetic instructions for building proteins, which control most cellular functions in living organisms.
DNA is a code written in strands of nucleotides, which contain the chemicals (technically called bases) Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), and Thymine (T). Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) are organelles that exist outside the nucleus of cells and are specifically inherited only from mothers. Only males have Y-chromosome DNA in their cells, passing from fathers to sons.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) contains information that living things need to be and do what they do. DNA gets copied and passed from one generation to the next when a living thing reproduces. DNA is what makes every single member of a species different from every other member of that species.
DNA is 2-meters long if you stretch it out. DNA is the genetic material for all living organisms except for some viruses. It would take many lifetimes to read even one human genome. The genome is the entire genetic code of an organism, including both the genes and the non-coding DNA. For humans, there are 3 billion letters in a genome.
DNA consists of groups of three letters called ‘codons.’ Each codon stands for a specific amino acid building block the cell needs to make proteins. There are 64 codons, but only 20 amino acids are mainly needed to make proteins.
Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Twenty-two pairs are autosomes that come in matching pairs, one from each parent, and one pair comes from our sex-determining chromosome, either XX or XY depending on whether you’re female or male.
The Structure of DNA
DNA consists of a backbone containing alternating sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups, with each sugar molecule attached to one of four different nitrogen-containing bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). Hydrogen bonds hold the DNA chain between the complementary bases on each strand.
If we look at a DNA molecule, it looks like a twisted ladder, and we call it a double helix. This double helix comprises four compounds called nucleotides, abbreviated with the letters A, C, G, and T. They are often seen in pairs that always match A-T and C-G.
A double helix is a spiral staircase in which the steps consist of sugar/phosphate molecules, and the handrails are the hydrogen-bonded base pairs.
The Function of DNA
DNA contains the instructions for making you who you are. Your DNA’s chemical makeup determines your appearance, physical and mental abilities, and personality traits. These instructions came from your parents, who passed them on from their parents, and so on back through time.
Some of our cells die daily, but your body produces new ones to replace them. The cell divides into two new cells, each with its DNA copy. DNA is a molecule that tells your body how to grow and develop.
The Cloning Theory
The dinosaur cloning theory states that it is possible to recover dinosaur DNA from amber-preserved insects, impregnate an ostrich, and then grow that embryo in the womb of a lysine-rich species. Scientists can recover ancient insect DNA from tiny samples of blood found in tree sap. Researchers hope to find fragments of ancient Dino DNA in similar locations.
When insects die, they are often trapped or preserved in amber along with pollen, dirt, and other microorganisms. When scientists retrieved this fossilized amber, they had previously found ancient bacteria, tardigrades (tiny water bears), and even fleas — all of which could contain traces of Dino DNA.
Scientists have suggested putting Dino DNA into a living cell and then letting the cell divide and multiply until you have 50 million cells. Once scientists had enough living cells, they could implant them into a host egg from an ostrich (like a chicken) and hope for the best. The lysine-rich environment ensures that the now-featherless dinosaur embryo will develop in the ostrich’s egg.
The DNA Theory
Because we have found dinosaur fossils and dinosaur DNA, this makes the possibility of actually creating a living, breathing dinosaur from their fossilized DNA something of a reality. We can now compare the DNA of dinosaurs to that of modern birds and crocodilians, which are closely related to dinosaurs.
DNA holds millions of genetic “recipes” for making proteins and enzymes. Recreating a dinosaur’s DNA is extremely complex because a few bits and pieces of the original DNA are always left in the fossils. Scientists have found bits and pieces of DNA in the bones, blood vessels, muscle tissue, skin, and more preserved in amber.
Let’s take a closer look at the DNA theory. It is well-known that animals and plants have some history buried in their DNA. As animals evolve, they leave markers in a certain spot on their DNA chain. These markers are synapomorphies, basically, sections of the genetic code that are unique to that genus or family of animals.
Suppose you wanted to try and figure out how closely related two different animals were (like humans and dinosaurs), you can look at the similarities between their genetics.
In this way, researchers have been able to look at the DNA of birds and compare it directly to the DNA of dinosaurs. They have found clear similarities in the genetic code between birds and dinosaurs. In that way, we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Some evidence suggests that certain birds may have had ancestries closely related to certain dinosaur species.
The Gene Theory
Dinosaurs lived a long time ago, but bird-like dinosaurs survived. Their DNA has not evolved that much since then, and we can use it as a starting point for Dino-DNA. Biologists have manipulated the genes of chickens so that they have teeth, longer tails, and other features like dinosaurs.
Scientists have studied fossils of dinosaurs, figured out what kinds of proteins made up their bones, muscles, and other tissues, and then compared those. In this theory, it is possible to manipulate the DNA of ancient animals still alive today, which involves changing the DNA of these animals to make them more like dinosaurs.
Scientists call these “transgenic” or “transgenic modification” animals. The scientists who propose this theory argue that if we can change living animals to have all the traits of dinosaurs, we can go back in time and create dinosaurs from their preserved Dino-DNA.
The Chicken Embryo Theory
Scientists based the Chicken Embryo Theory on the idea that, since chickens are the closest relatives of dinosaurs, they may be able to create a dinosaur by implanting a chicken embryo with dinosaur DNA. A chicken embryo has dinosaur features in its DNA.
The theory claims that if a scientist could remove a section of DNA, it would become a dinosaur. Paleontologists have been unable to match the 48 chromosomes of chickens to those of dinosaurs.
Some scientists believe it would be difficult to find useable dinosaur DNA because it degrades quickly in the moist environment where dinosaurs are usually found (paleontologists are most likely to find dinosaur bones in swampy areas).
These scientists also point out that finding usable DNA would be challenging, but it is not impossible. They say there is still hope for finding a piece of dinosaur DNA that is intact enough for us to use.
To use the Chicken Embryo Theory, they will have to insert dinosaur DNA into a chicken embryo and then allow the embryo to develop into a chicken with some dinosaur characteristics. This theory is not going to work because dinosaurs and birds evolved differently from each other.
Theory: Can Scientists find Dino-DNA in Ancient Amber?
Scientists were trying to extract viable dinosaur DNA from preserved blood-sucking insects trapped in pieces of amber. When it comes to real science, that’s a no-go. In 2012, researchers discovered a mosquito preserved in fossilized tree sap for 46 million years. They couldn’t extract dinosaur genes but got some readable mosquito DNA from the specimen.
That discovery led scientists to believe that rare, well-preserved mosquitoes might hold the DNA secrets to solving some mysteries about dinosaurs. At least now we know where to look for them.
Unfortunately for those obsessed with bringing back giant monsters, DNA starts breaking down immediately after death. It breaks down faster in warm climates and when water and other elements are present and exposed.
While some scientists think it may be possible to extract DNA from a dinosaur using an ancient insect preserved in amber, no one has ever tested this method on dinosaur DNA. There is no evidence that any dinosaur blood cells still exist after millions of years.
If one could find a perfectly preserved mosquito containing dinosaur blood cells inside its abdomen, extracting enough usable DNA from those cells would be impossible until technology advances tremendously.
The Trouble with ‘Dino-DNA’ – DNA Molecules Eventually Decay
DNA molecules tend to break down after a long period, which is why modern-day scientists have been unable to recover dinosaur DNA. There are hundreds of millions of years between the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the present day. The oldest piece of dinosaur DNA that researchers have been able to find is only 1 million years old.
The chances that paleontologists will ever find dino DNA over 65 million years old are nearly impossible. Many paleontologists aren’t convinced that cloning dinosaurs are possible with today’s technology. Long ago, the world was much hotter than it is today.
DNA molecules decay accelerated when exposed to temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius). It’s impossible to recreate a dinosaur because the Dino-DNA has likely degraded over the millions of years since the dinosaur went extinct.
Whether Jurassic Park or The Land That Time Forgot, the idea of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction is captivating. It has inspired many scientists, including Jack Horner, who has suggested that it might be possible to use dinosaur DNA to bring back dinosaurs someday.
Reality is probably something close to Jurassic Park, though—some dinosaurs will live on in other forms, but nothing like their original selves. Is it possible to recreate dinosaurs from their Dino-DNA? The answer to that question is that nobody knows. Nobody can say for sure whether scientists will ever bring back dinosaurs. Scientists are working to make it possible, and they’ve already had some promising results.