Most people predicting a real-life Jurassic Park expect to see it happen in Siberia, where frozen corpses of extinct wooly mammoths and other Ice Age creatures are appearing regularly as the permafrost melts. However, if you’re hoping to visit a theme park filled with velociraptors, T. rexes and the like, the place may be somewhere in China, where researchers announced they have isolated cartilage cells from a well-preserved dinosaur fossil in China – cells with nuclei containing traces of biomolecules and other organic structures. Should you start saving for an admission ticket and fast pass for all of the exhibits?
The title “Nuclear preservation in the cartilage of the Jehol dinosaur Caudipteryx” of a study by scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature (STM) published recently in Communications Biology contains two phrases to get de-extinction proponents excited – ‘nuclear preservation’ and ‘Caudipteryx’. The Caudipteryx was a small peacock-sized omnivore with long tail feathers (images and fossil pictures here) living in the Jehol Biota of northeast China during the Early Cretaceous era 125 million years ago. That means it probably has a close modern descendent that can incubate an embryo made from the nuclei, organic molecules and chromatin (chromosome material). In fact, that’s the first thing the researchers checked.
“The histochemical stain Hematoxylin and Eosin (that stains the nucleus and cytoplasm in extant cells) was applied to both the demineralized cartilage of Caudipteryx and that of a chicken. The two specimens reacted identically, and one dinosaur chondrocyte revealed a nucleus with fossilized threads of chromatin.”
The cells had been mineralized by silicification after the death of the Caudipteryx, which preserved them. After decalcification, the researchers were not only able to analyze the cells down to the nucleus, they could determine at what stage of life or dying they were – information that will help isolate the best cells for further study. No one has yet to successfully sequence any dinosaur DNA, but research has been restricted to young fossils around no older than about one million years. These new techniques for extracting DNA from fossils 125 million years old increases the available species and fossils by orders of magnitude.
Is it too soon to start planning for a Beijing Jurassic Park? Probably. While this discovery shows ancient DNA could be extracted from ancient fossils, they haven’t done it … yet. Nor have they sequenced any genomes … yet. It also shows that they’ll still need a modern host for the ancient eggs, so these dinosaurs wouldn’t be clones of Cretaceous creatures.
While a park filled with T. rexes would certainly be cool, the movies show it’s probably not a good idea. How about a park filled with dinosaur peacocks? Not good for a movie plot but a much better place to take the kids.