In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about it. Yes, yes – there’s the odd teensy downside to populating an island with once-extinct reptiles. Sure, the T rex turns out to show a disregard for road safety. And velociraptors’ approach to hide and seek is frankly unsportsmanlike. But the majestic song of the brachiosaurus! The incredible dino-flocks! The glistening magnificence of Jeff Goldblum’s chest rug! Could Jurassic Park happen in real life?
Back in 1993, it seemed like it. Newsweek ran an article attesting to the scientific plausibility of Jurassic Park, pointing to the fact that – during filming – two Berkeley scientists announced that they had cloned 40m-year-old bee DNA after finding the insect preserved in amber. “This movie depends on credibility,” Spielberg told Newsweek. “The credibility of the premise – that dinosaurs could come back to life through cloning – is what allowed the movie to be made.”
But there were problems even then. To replicate a dinosaur genome, you would need billions of DNA’s building blocks, base pairs. But none of the ancient DNA they harvested had more than 250. Which is like unboxing a 10,000-piece T rex jigsaw to find two corner pieces and a bit of tooth. And, in the last few years, the University of Manchester’s amber-based experiments have shown that the bee DNA findings were likely to be based on false results, anyway. Plus, there’s one other teeny obstacle to setting up Jurassic Park: no one has actually ever found any dinosaur DNA. Scientists know that DNA degrades over time, and the oldest DNA ever found is about a million years old. The dinosaur DNA you need would have had to survive around 65m years.
Perhaps life can find a way, though. A controversial palaeontologist – who also just happens to be a scientific consultant to the Jurassic Park franchise – thinks that we might have all the DNA we need: in chickens. Scientists have managed to tweak poultry DNA to grow alligator-like teeth and a dinosaur-like snout instead of a beak. Still, given that the project is often referred to as “chickenosaurus”, it might not be quite the awe-inspiring spectacle Spielberg had in mind.
On top of that, you can also consider the cretaceous plant species that give Jurassic Park its lush, verdant quality to be a write-off (how were they even meant to have got the plant DNA out of a mosquito? Catch it during Veganuary?). And, obviously, the creatures would not be recreations of once-dead species such as T rex, but a human-engineered version of how we believe dinosaurs to have been. They might lack the same majesty as in the film, especially given that – knowing the link between dinosaurs and birds – things might also be a tad downier than on-screen.
So, Jurassic Park’s vision of scientists genetically engineering dinosaur-like creatures could happen. Will they be installed inside an awe-inspiring theme park featuring Jeep-based tours? Less likely, but who knows? You’d hope not, given that we’re now five films deep into seeing how they end up turning humanity into a mid-morning snack. In the words of Jeff Goldblum: sometimes we get so preoccupied with whether we could, we don’t stop to think if we should.
• This article was amended on 22 February 2021. An earlier version stated that the oldest DNA ever found was from an 800,000-year-old ancestor of humans. However, scientists recently said they had sequenced DNA from mammoths believed to be more than a million years old.