Revisiting “Jurassic Park”: Could dinosaurs really be cloned?

Zoomed in photo of a fly-like insect trapped in orange amber

Field Museum specimen of an insect trapped in 40-million-year-old Baltic amber.

“Where do you get 100-million-year-old dinosaur blood?” asks Dr. Ellie Sattler, a character in the original “Jurassic Park” movie. In the film, dinosaurs are cloned from DNA preserved in amber. More specifically, from dinosaur blood inside mosquitoes that are trapped in the amber. Spoiler alert: things get a little out of hand as the cloned dinos wreak havoc on Isla Nublar.

The idea of cloning dinosaurs has captured the imagination of nearly everyone who saw the movie, but is it really possible? In the early 1990s, several research groups announced that they had recovered ancient insect DNA from amber, some as old as 120 million years. However, these results have not been duplicated using different techniques, and it is now believed that these early results were due to contamination by modern DNA.

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Painting of dinosaurs and crocodiles in a tropical setting
Painting of an Apatosaurus by Charles Knight, 1930. Photo © The Field Museum, CK5T, Photographer Ron Testa.  

More recently, in a 2013 study, researchers from the University of Manchester tried to recover DNA from insects ranging in age from 50 to 10,000 years. They were trapped in copal, which is tree resin that has hardened but hasn’t polymerized, or turned into amber. However, this effort to extract DNA was unsuccessful, and the researchers concluded that amber may not provide a protective environment that could preserve ancient DNA. 

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Brown hair in a plastic container
Mammoth hair from the Pleistocene (1.8 million-10,000 years ago), found frozen in ice in Russia. On display in the Evolving Planet exhibition.

But we shouldn’t give up all hope of cloning ancient animals. Mammoth DNA was recovered from 20,000-year-old mammoth hair found frozen in ice. Findings like this suggest that ice may provide a better environment for protecting DNA over time. 

There’s ongoing research on bringing mammoths back to life: an international group of researchers lead by the University of Chicago sequenced the complete genome of two woolly mammoths and compared them to Asian elephants. And a group of researchers at Harvard inserted mammoth DNA into the genes of an elephant and are working on cloning a mammoth. There’s also a project to clone mammoths at the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Russia. 

So, while dinosaurs might not walk among us in the near future, cloning extinct animals using preserved ancient DNA may not be out of the question.