When I first learned that Jurassic Park 4 aka Jurassic World had been greenlit, I was cautiously excited. Just kidding – I was mostly really excited. I’ve been a dinosaur enthusiast for, quite literally, forever and it’s been over a decade since the last sub-par Jurassic Park sequel, Jurassic Park 3 (whose highlight was a spinosaurus vs. T.Rex battle that I feel obligated to share with everyone). Obviously, we were overdue for an ill-advised return to the dinosaur-filled islands of the Caribbean.
The central conceit of Jurassic World is, arguably, not the actual ongoing existence of the dinosaurs but the fact that a new dinosaur-filled park (the titular Jurassic World) – set-up by the same company that bankrolled the original Jurassic Park – was somehow allowed to come into existence. This is one of the many plot points that is best not to dwell too much on. Jurassic World is filled with oodles of fan-favorite dinos and welcomes thousands of visitors on a daily basis, but in spite of seemingly strong revenues and attendance, the people demand dinosaurs that are bigger and better. This mind-boggling piece of information – how could people become blasé about dinosaurs? – is conveyed by the park’s super-stiff operations manager, but it’s worth noting that none of the visitors we glimpse seem the least bit bored. In any case, the drive to create new attractions has led to the generation of a new “asset” – Indominus Rex. And, unsurprisingly, Indominus Rex turns out to be suboptimal as a park attraction. While I don’t want to spoil the fun of why Indominus Rex is a crazy killing machine, I do want to revisit the question I had as a five year old: is it possible to make a dinosaur?
As we all learned from Mr. DNA in Jurassic Park, the scientific logic behind regeneration of dinosaurs in these movies is quite simple. Partial dinosaur DNA sequences, isolated from mosquitoes trapped in amber, can be made complete through the use of frog DNA and – voila! – you get adorable baby dinosaurs. Scientists/parents who were sick of hearing about dinosaurs pointed out some obvious flaws in this plan back when Jurassic Park was released. First and most depressingly, dinosaur DNA has long since disintegrated. The half-life of DNA is estimated to be 521 years and, at best, readable DNA can likely be preserved for only 6.8 million years. Given that dinos died out 65 million years ago, obtaining even somewhat well-preserved dino DNA is a no go. Moreover, frog DNA is likely not the best filler material. It is now widely accepted that birds are, in fact, living dinosaurs and bird DNA would thus be more appropriate for filling in sequence gaps. Nonetheless, the scientists at Jurassic World – led by a familiar face from Jurassic Park and unencumbered by reality – have ramped up the strategy first presented by Mr. DNA. As a simple T. Rex no longer cuts it for the investors or the park visitors, the scientists take the T. Rex DNA sequence and further modify it with DNA from other species of dinosaurs – you can probably guess at least one of these – and DNA from cuttlefish and the tree frog. This genetic hybrid, dubbed Indominus Rex, is – thankfully, given what we see of her in the movie – no more likely to exist than your average T. Rex.
In spite of these obstacles to resurrecting dinosaurs, all hope is not lost! In a case of truly perfect publication timing – the research article was published just a few weeks before Jurassic World was released – a team of biologists reported that they they were able to genetically manipulate the embryonic development of the chicken beak such that it more closely resembled the snout of a reptile. They found that two key developmental proteins – fibroblast growth factor and a component of the Wnt signaling pathway – spatially differ in embryonic expression between reptiles and birds. By interfering with the expression of these proteins, the research team was able to block beak development in chicken embryos and the embryos instead developed structures that more closely resembled reptilian or, in more exciting terms, dinosaur, snouts. Thus, while it is not possible to create a dinosaur the way Mr. DNA told us, it may be possible to create what eminent paleontologist Jack Horner has called a “chickensaurus” – a modified chicken with dinosaur properties. Like many of us, Horner wanted to have a pet dinosaur as a kid and he’s actively trying to make his dream a reality (in 2009, he co-authored a book with the ultimate “click-bait” title for me: “How to Build a Dinosaur: The New Science of Reverse Evolution”). While there are many other dino parts that may need to be “reverse evolved” out of a chicken, Horner seems optimistic that dino-chickens could come into existence in the near future. I therefore hold out hope that a baby dino petting zoo could yet exist in reality.
Leaving aside science, I would also like to impart a few thoughts on the movie as a whole. Jurassic World is a fun ride packed with plenty of nostalgic references to the original Park, which I greatly appreciated. That said, it is neither as thrilling nor as wondrous as the first film. There are no scenes akin to the raptors in the kitchen or when the paleontologists first see a living dinosaur, one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time (no seriously – go rewatch it right now). There is far too much product placement (companies can even sponsor new dinos – lame) and CGI (Indominus and his fellow dinosaurs did, on occasion, look disturbingly fake). But for what it’s worth, the climactic scene got total audience applause when I saw it in a packed theater on opening night and, in my view, that scene alone is worth the price of admission. The dinos don’t disappoint in Jurassic World and, in the end, that’s all that matters.