Ask A Vet: Could Jurassic World Really Happen?

I went to see the new movie, Jurassic World with my family on its opening night. It was a fun and thrilling adventure and we had a great time. As is often the case, my 11 year old son posed a thought provoking question for me and his also medically trained father. It is always rewarding to revisit scientific principles from our college days to help our son have a good foundation for the facts as we see them.

As we talked about DNA and genetic codes, we discussed that a basic principle of the plot of these movies was the resurrection of the formerly extinct species of dinosaurs, using a mix of fragments of DNA found in ancient mosquitoes and modern day species, like frogs and fish. Then he asked, “Could we even almost do that today? If we had dinosaur DNA?”

My husband and I both started to explain that there are labs cloning animals and bioengineering them also, but we were both unsure if there had ever been an animal DNA strand that was completely engineered using puzzles pieces from different species. As a practicing vet, I am somewhat separated from my research colleagues but I told my son that I would use my access to the newest medical research to find out for him how realistic this premise was in today’s science world.

What I uncovered were instances of bioengineering positively affecting many lives every day. Although to my knowledge no one has found a way to create a brand new hybrid by slicing gene sequences, we have been able to splice sections of genetic code that give instructions for how to make or do certain things. For example, scientists know how to add genes to transgenic (genetically modified) cows allowing them to the produce milk that contains lactoferrin, a substance that benefits the human babies that drink it instead the calf offspring it was naturally optimized for. (1) Transgenic research has made leaps of which I was unaware.

There is genetic research being done on DNA of single species too. I found some somewhat astounding research being performed on human embryos to “edit” out defective DNA sequence and replace with normal sequences (also human). The embryos that were used were non-viable and would never have resulted in a live birth, but the research was able to cleave the DNA segments and in a few cases effectively replace them, but sadly, many times the cleaving was off target or another sequence inserted itself into the section creating mutations. (2)

The premise of the Jurassic series is that scientists were able to not only cleave and replace sections of DNA, but to replace and combine the sections with the genetic maps of entirely different species (some extinct for millions of years) and produce viable specimens. This is a stretch for sure, as movie magic often is, but the basic science is real. We have some of this technology and in our blind mission to improve civilization, hopefully we likewise will not get something we did not bargain for.

  1. Transgenic Research. 2015 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]Production of human lactoferrin and lysozyme in the milk of transgenic dairy animals: past, present, and future. Cooper CA, Maga EA, Murray JD.
  1. Protein & Cell.2015 May;6(5):363-72. doi: 10.1007/s13238-015-0153-5. Epub 2015 Apr 18. CRISPR/Cas9-mediatedgene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes. Liang P, et al.