Dinosaurs are peculiar objects of scientific curiosity. Ever since Darwin’s rival Richard Owen gave them a name and classified them in the mid-nineteenth century, they have been thoroughly and painstakingly studied. On the other hand, they often inspire wild fantasies that have little or nothing to do with scientific facts. Enthusiasm for dinosaurs waned markedly during the twentieth century, but enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960s, as scientific controversy changed the conventional image of dinosaurs from being far from sluggish giants, some species being agile hunters, social creatures, and possibly even warm-blooded.
And then came Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the story. No other novel or film had a comparable impact on the science it fictionalized. To this day, the whole franchise continues to impact the way dinosaurs are presented to the public. And this despite the fact that “Jurassic Park” in its six cinematic versions has not kept pace with scientific developments in all aspects. However, as Elizabeth D. Jones describes in her book, one field of research has an extremely interesting relationship to “Jurassic Park” – research on ancient DNA, the remains of hereditary molecules from dead organisms.
The connections between ancient DNA, dinosaurs, and the resurgence of extinct species have been discussed since before Jurassic Park. Evolutionary biologists began using molecular data to study the evolutionary relationships between species in the 1960s. They were dependent on protein and DNA molecules from species that exist today. Retrieving ancient DNA from fossils was an idea pursued by a number of laboratories in the 1980s, most notably by Allan Wilson at Berkeley. First attempts were made in 1983 on insects preserved in amber, but they were never published.
A spectacle that captivated the general public
The researchers turned their attention to an animal that had only become extinct in the late nineteenth century, the quagga, a species related to zebras. They finally managed to isolate, sequence and display small fragments of DNA from a 140-year-old specimen that the quagga was a subspecies of the plains zebra. The possibility of resurrecting this species was already a motivation for the project.
At the same time, Svante Pääbo was working in Sweden to extract ancient DNA from human mummies, which he finally succeeded in doing in 1984. However, isolating and analyzing ancient DNA still remained more of a gamble than a standardized method. In 1986, Kary Mullis introduced the polymerase chain reaction, and this technology would revolutionize molecular biology as a whole, as well as ancient DNA research. The reliable amplification of the small fragments of ancient DNA and also their analysis became standard methods, while ensuring the purity of the samples remained a major challenge.
Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” was published in 1990 during this time, when research on ancient DNA was establishing itself as an independent field. Since then, public expectations of this research field have been shaped by a science fiction thriller that extrapolates existing technology in a way that seems superficially plausible. Most scholars distanced themselves from the narrative established in Jurassic Park, but used the popularity of the novel and film to further public awareness of their work.
Instigator of media campaigns
From then on, the extraction and analysis of old DNA from fossils became a spectacle that captivated the general public and also the specialist audience. The respected science journal Nature published a paper on DNA from a 135-million-year-old beetle the day before Spielberg’s film premiered — which, of course, was no coincidence. It was also no coincidence that some rather speculative research proposals were then approved by the notoriously difficult to convince National Science Foundation.
In her presentation, Elizabeth Jones falls back on the concept of “contamination”. On the one hand, he describes the fear of scientists about contamination of old DNA with new ones, but on the other hand, the concern that media attention could damage the credibility of the research field. She tells of the opportunities and risks that the fuss about ancient DNA brought to the scientists who were often the instigators of the media campaigns; and it shows which demands scientists have to reconcile: Getting involved in a hype may mean an increase in reputation and more research funds, but it can also raise doubts about the results. This book shows that even novels and films can have an influence on research topics and the motivation of scientists.
Elizabeth D Jones: “Ancient DNA”. The Making of a Celebrity Science. Yale University Press, New Haven 2022. 288 pp., hardcover, €36.