In June 1993, the science journal Nature published the exciting discovery of the oldest DNA ever extracted, belonging to a weevil who lived around 130 million years ago. The next day, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was released. For the director, this was a stroke of luck—free publicity from a reliable scientific source. In fact, the unfortunate weevil lived at the same time as the disonsaurs. But the coincidence lent publicity to the scientists also; “It boosted ancient DNA as an early science”, says historian Elizabeth Jones. “Something that people had never heard of suddenly became extremely popular.” For better or for worse, the dinosaur blockbuster pushed this field of study into the public eye.
The source for Jurassic Park was a book of the same name by Michael Crichton, which in turn was inspired by scientists. In 1982 for example, entomologist George Poinar Jr. and his colleagues examined a fossil fly encased in amber and suggested that it might be possible to extract its DNA. Crichton heard about the study, and It inspired his work of fiction. Poinar, together with another researcher Raul Cano, went on to publish the 1993 study on the weevil.When this study was published David Grimaldi, a lead researcher from a rival team, was quick to express concern. In extracting DNA from the weevil, the team had destroyed the specimen, which was likely to be unique. Grimaldi disapproved of this wanton disregard for important specimens for the sake of breaking records.
Indeed, the research was soon compromised. In 1997, a group of scientists tried and failed to replicate the experiment and extract DNA from fossils. Author Kimberley Walden wrote that their findings “bring other claims of amplifications from amber fossil insect specimens into question,” and concluded that the results of the 1993 study were “extremely questionable”. A year later, a different team concluded that the DNA taken from the weevil actually came from fungal contamination in the specimen. The buzz around Jurassic Park seems to have overemphasised the reliability of the 1993 study. But Elizabeth Jones doesn’t see it as a total failure; “a lot of science is trial and error and finding out what we don’t know”. What we now know is that in 2012 it was calculated that DNA has a half-life of only 521 years, meaning that it would be destroyed within 6.8 million years, if not earlier. So luckily for us, we will never have a test tube of T-Rex genes.
Applicants for the sciences may be interested in this example of fact meeting fiction. Should research allow itself to be influenced by society and popular culture? Can science ever be truly objective?
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