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NGS and TRex: The Science Of Jurassic Park

The necessity to see negative scientific results in academic journals has recently drawn some attention. However, for the working experimentalist, it is still unthinkable that he or she would be able to publish meticulous experiments that have painstakingly produced, well, nothing! That is unless Hollywood has made your experiment part of the popular culture.

A satisfying dinosaur blood meal

The main premise of the movie Jurassic Park is that dinosaur DNA could be extracted from prehistoric mosquitoes preserved in amber right after a satisfying dinosaur blood meal. There was some real science behind this back-story.

Preserved insects

Mosquitoes did exist at the same time as dinosaurs and there is no reason to believe they would have been picky about their food source. Also, plant resin (which subsequently turned to modern-day amber inside the earth) is believed to be a great preservative. Some insect samples were found in amber having their internal organs preserved!

Not so implausible

However, in 1993, the Human Genome Project had only just started and being able to extract and read the DNA sequence of prehistoric dinosaurs from these tiny specimens was truly in the realm of science fiction. Fast forward 20 years and this scenario does not sound all that implausible. NGS has already allowed for the genomes of many prehistoric animals (including hominoids) to be read in a matter of days. But how about sequencing the tiny insect samples encapsulated in amber, just like they did in Jurassic Park?

Bees in copal

Perhaps this is what some researchers in the University of Manchester (UK) had in mind when they decided to sequence the DNA from stingless bees trapped in copal, the hardened precursor of amber. Making things easier for them, the two samples they used were by no means as old as those in the movie. One was dating from around 10.5 thousand years ago and the other was almost contemporary and served as a control. They extracted the specimens from the samples very carefully not to contaminate them with modern DNA and followed the standard library preparation procedures for the GS Junior 454 sequencer. The result: a big NOTHING. The ancient sample failed to produce any meaningful DNA sequences- not to say any DNA at all.

A myth busted…for now

Of course, one can argue that the extraction method from the copal was leaving inhibiting contaminants or that the GS Junior 454 system does not allow for the depth necessary to identify degraded DNA samples. But in true ‘Mythbuster’ style, for now, this Jurassic Park myth is BUSTED.

Engaging the public

This story goes beyond the publication of negative results or their relevance to a very popular movie. It is an example of the importance of having the public engaged with scientific questions. In this case, public interest in the particular research was so important that even negative results were deemed publishable. In other cases, public interest in a research topic, Alzheimer’s disease is a good example, has helped secure more public and private funding for it.

Helping your negative results

Keep this thought in mind next time a friend asks you what you are working on at the lab. Despite the fact that nothing has ‘worked’ for you for a whole week, do your best to give a vivid and satisfying answer. You never know, it might help your research in more ways than you could imagine.

David Penney, et al., (2013) ‘Absence of Ancient DNA in Sub-Fossil Insect Inclusions Preserved in ‘Anthropocene’ Colombian Copal’ PLOSone 

 

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