Dinosaurs and DNA: The Science Behind ‘Jurassic Park’

Seeker's Bad Science podcast probes the science behind the popular sci-fi franchise.

In 1993, director Steven Spielberg released the original Jurassic Park, adapting author Michael Crichton's popular novel about genetically resurrected dinosaurs run amok on an island theme park. Rampaging predators! Kids in peril! Laura Dern! Good times.

Jurassic Park has since become one of the busiest science fiction franchises of the 21st century. The latest installment in the series, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is slated for release this Friday. The films proceed from an area of scientific speculation that has long intrigued geneticists: Is it possible to resurrect extinct species by cloning their DNA?

In the latest episode of Bad Science, Seeker's podcast on science at the movies, host Ethan Edenburg explores the topic with this week's guests, comedian Scott Rogowsky of HQ Trivia and Dr. Alyssa Bell, paleontologist with Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.

In a funny, nostalgic and wide-ranging conversation, the three panelists cover both the science and the fiction of Jurassic Park — everything from genetic sequencing to dubious plot holes to the history of paleontology.

As Bell explains, the modern science of paleontology didn't start ramping up until the mid-1800s. But it turns out that we humans were into dinosaurs before that. Historical research from around the globe suggests that older civilizations were aware of dinosaurs through the fossil record.

“There's archaeological evidence that older cultures recognized that these bones were something special,” Bell says.

In one recent study, archaeologists found evidence of a Native American dwelling where the entire abode was built up and around a fossil of a giant dinosaur footprint.

As to the core question in the Jurassic Park franchise — Will we ever be able to really resurrect dinosaurs? — Bell is reluctantly pessimistic.

“The problem with dinosaur DNA is how old it is,” Bell says. “We're talking a minimum of 66 million years.”

Like all organic material, DNA decays. And that's the biggest impediment to developing real Jurassic Park technologies, Bell says. For modern genetic techniques to even have a shot at dinosaur DNA, we would need to retrieve and reassemble viable genetic code.

“The best we've done in terms of de-extinction is with the gastric-brooding frog,” he remarks, referring to an Australian animal that went extinct in the 1980s. In 2013, scientists were able to successfully clone embryos from tissue samples in an experiment called the Lazarus Project. While technically a success, the experiment didn't bode well for future cloning projects.

“The embryos lasted a few days, then they died,” Bell notes. “That's our greatest success story.”

Fans of the original Jurassic Park will remember that the dinosaur blood was preserved over the millions of years by mosquitoes encased in amber. Is that a possibility?

Unfortunately, no.

“Even in amber, it still decays,” Bell says. “Sixty-six million years is an insane amount of time.”

Tune in for this week's episode for more details on fossil excavation, genetic sequencing and some curious conjecture on the matter of brachiosaurus eggs.