Back in the early 1990s, I kind of just assumed I'd have a pet dinosaur by now. I probably would have enjoyed naming him something ironic, like Peanut. Or maybe Dino Gillespie. But that's all beside the point because scientists have apparently all been spending their time discovering exoplanets and making dancing robots instead of working on cloning some friggin' dinosaurs.
But before resigning ourselves to a decidedly undinosaured fate; there are some faint beacons of hope that may yet result in something resembling a real live rawr-ing dinosaur! I guess better late than never, right? We'll see. Just make with the T. rex, scienceface.
To be fair to the scientific profession, genetically recreating a dinosaur is far more difficult than Steven Spielberg via Michael Crichton made it out to be. There are many hurdles that Park just kind of just glossed over. First, intact dino DNA doesn't grow on trees, or even in fossilized amber for that matter. Back in the early '90s, there were some well-publicized claims of ancient DNA plundered from mosquitoes preserved inside chunks of amber, but they've never been replicated. Despite everything Mr. DNA told you, scientists have never isolated unequivocal, useful dinosaur DNA from this method.
There have been attempts to extract DNA from fossilized dinosaur bones, but even even these have failed to yield anything clone-worthy. The short of it is this: when DNA molecules go to battle against long stretches of time, time always wins.
And this is an important point because in order to recreate an animal, scientists need a near complete genetic blueprint. According to Professor Jeremy Austin who worked on London's Natural History Museum's Ancient DNA Project (which resulted in zero dinosaurs BTW), the few spare fragments that scientists have found won't cut it:
Even if we could successfully isolate fragments of dinosaur DNA, mapping the correct DNA sequence for a complete dinosaur genome would be like trying to predict the contents, and order, of a complete library of information, from the facts contained in just one or two pages of a single book.
Aside from the lack of useable DNA creating a daunting "software" problem in building a dinosaur, there's also a hardware issue. Specifically, science has yet to create a suitable stand-in oocyte or female germ cell to create an extinct species. Clones such as Dolly the sheep have all been members of living animal species, thus scientists were able to find a suitable vessel to bake the clone to perfection: in Dolly's case an unfertilized sheep egg implanted in a living lady sheep's uterus.
The make-believe Jurassic Park movie scientists opted for unfertilized ostrich eggs for this part of the process, while the original book's science team utilized fabricated eggs made from "a new plastic with the characteristics of an avian eggshell." These probably wouldn't work. As usual; reality is far more annoying than fiction.
Despite our deplorable and shameful lack of cloned dinosaurs, geneticists have made some truly giant strides in the past two decades. Namely, the aforementioned Dolly the Scottish sheep who popped into the world for a second time in 1996.
Since Dolly part deux, many species have been successfully cloned — everything from frogs on up to Rhesus monkeys. The process has become routine enough that rich crazy people have been able to hire private firms to clone their deceased pets. Cloning an animal still costs a pretty penny, (and often results in a number of "mistakes" before perfecting a viable fluffy facsimile), but not to worry, plenty of for-profit DNA storage companies will happily keep Fido's DNA on ice until the cost of cloning comes down. Pet immortality for the everyman.
And even when scientists are not busy growing doggie dopplegangers, they've become really good at mapping full genomes, the entirety of an organism's genetic code. In 2003, researchers completed the decades-long Human Genome Project. And since then, numerous full genomes of both animals and humans have been successfully mapped.
In 2006, the X Prize foundation introduced the Archon X Prize for Genomics. The $10 million payout will go to the first team to successfully "build a device and use it to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days or less, with an accuracy of no more than one error in every 100,000 bases sequenced, with sequences accurately covering at least 98% of the genome, and at a recurring cost of no more than $10,000 [U.S.] per genome." Several private genetic firms are currently aiming for the prize, but the specifics of the task have yet to be accomplished.
According to Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography, Jobs had his genes sequenced for $100,000, making the late tech titan one of only 20 humans in the world with his full genetic make-up sequenced and stored.
We should also note that scientists have managed to clone an extinct species. Sort of. In 2009, scientists cloned a bucardo (a subspecies of wild goat, pictured above) that went extinct in 2000. The team gathered DNA cultivated from a frozen skin sample of the last known bucardo in 1999. The DNA was placed in the unfertilized egg of a domestic goat and then implanted into another related wild goat species. After several failed attempts, the project did result in a live birth, but the newborn animal died within minutes due to a physical lung defect.
For the past decade, there have been several attempts to isolate mammoth DNA. Since the last species of mammoth passed only 4,000 years ago, it is possible that frozen samples may yield useable genetic material. To that end, a joint Russia-Japan research team recently announced that they have plans to produce a mammoth clone "in five years." Specifically, scientists are basing this cocky prediction on a well-preserved marrow from a mammoth thighbone discovered in the Siberian permafrost last August.
Sill, the relatively recently departed mammoth species has left some comparatively intact DNA, which may be a reproductive match for the species' evolutionary relatives who are still stomping around today. So, in the future, it's not out of the question that we may be able to encounter a real life mammoth. Maybe as part of some "Pleistocene Park." However, when it comes to recreating a dinosaur, scientists have started to get creative.
One of the leading dino-making ideas comes from paleontologist Jack Horner (who was the science adviser to the film Jurassic Park, BTW). Horner and company are currently in the process of "retrobuilding" a dinosaur from the dino-descendents we have among us today: birds. Namely chickens. Horner and his team want to alter the genetic code of a chicken to bring out the unexpressed dinosaur-like traits hidden in the chicken's well-understood genome.
How close will this "chickensaurus" be to a real life dinosaur? As Horner explained to LiveScience, that is a little up in the air.
We're working with an animal that has all the right stuff. It's more about subtle changes, adding a tail or fixing a hand or possibly adding teeth, what we would think of as being relatively simple changes rather than messing with physiology or something like that.
So, maybe that's not exactly a dinosaur. Even Horner refers to this theoretical creature as just a "modified chicken." But, alas, this may be our only chance to see aspects of a real life dinosaur.
As it looks now, that dream of riding on top of a triceratops on the way to work may have to be laid to rest. UNLESS researchers finally perfect that time machine that science fiction has been promising us since like forever.
Still gonna hold out for that one.