If filmed today, the science suggests many of “Jurassic Park’s” dinos would look a bit more Tweety Bird than Terrible Lizard. The first film hewed to the long-standing image of dinosaurs as big, scaly reptiles. Subsequent research, however, has provided more and more evidence that many meat-eating dinosaurs sported plumage. A year ago, scientists in China unearthed a feathered tyrannosaur — Yutyrannus huali — a slightly smaller relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. Velociraptors also clearly had feathers, confirmed by the 2007 discovery of quill knobs, a type of feather anchor, on raptor arm bones.
This was suspected even at the time of the 1997 sequel, “The Lost World.” Spielberg made a gesture toward the science by putting a few feathers on his speedy killers in that film, though not as many as the paleontologists requested. If he had, the raptors would have looked too different from the first film, said Jack Horner, a renowned paleontologist at Montana State University and a technical adviser on all of the “Jurassic Park” films. Nevertheless, reports suggest that the fourth “Jurassic Park” film, due out next year, will keep the dinos scaly — despite what experts say.
Mammoth boost to cloning?
Back when “Jurassic Park” debuted, science was still three years away from the arrival of the sheep named Dolly, the first cloned adult animal. In 2001, scientists replicated the first endangered species — Noah the guar, a type of threatened ox. Since then, cloning and genetic technologies have continued to advance, with some researchers turning their attention to extinct species.
Now, new genetic tools and well-preserved specimens could make one Jurassic Park-type feat a reality: cloning a mammoth. Last year, a South Korean and Russian team announced its goal of doing just that.
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In the film, a fictional educational cartoon credits “thinking machine supercomputers and gene sequencers” with reading dinosaur DNA. No technology in 1993 could have done that. In 2005, however, the 454 Life Science Genome Sequencer made such massive genetic analysis possible. “The change in technology really sparked our ability to deep-sequence these extinct species,” said Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University in Ontario who is studying mammoth DNA.
The film correctly predicted the need to repair ancient DNA, which degrades over time, and to use modern relatives to bring extinct animals back to life. In Jurassic Park, scientists plugged holes in degraded dino DNA with substitutes from frogs, incubating the extinct animals’ embryos in emu and ostrich eggs. Similarly, current or near-current science could repair the fragmented genetic material of mammoths using elephant templates and then implant an embryo in an elephant womb. Ensuring that the elephant could bring a mammoth embryo to term poses the next challenge, but much of the science is in place — such as synthesizing long sequences of DNA and modifying cells to be pluripotent stem cells, which can turn into any cell in the body, Poinar said.