Before Jurassic Park: The study of ancient DNA.

A tick entangled in a dinosaur feather (From Peñalver et al., 2017)

We all know the story. In the early 80’s, John Hammond, a shady entrepreneur, created the ultimate thematic park by cloning dinosaurs from preserved DNA in mosquitoes entombed in amber. The idea, as Michael Crichton acknowledged, was not new.

In 1982, entomologist George Poinar and electron microscopist Roberta Hess at University of California,  found exceptional evidence for the organic preservation of a 40-million-year-old fly in Baltic amber. They saw intact cell organelles, such as nuclei, and mitochondria, and wondered whether these results were replicable. After a letter from Poinar to a colleague, they received, a week later,  a 70–80 million-year-old wasp in Canadian amber. The wasp also revealed evidence of cellular structure. The realization that amber was a special source of cellular preservation caused them to wonder if it could be a source of molecular preservation, too.

Quagga mare at London Zoo, 1870, the only specimen photographed alive

Poinar and Hess joined forces with Allan Wilson, Professor of Biochemistry at Berkeley, and Russell Higuchi, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral researcher in Wilson’s lab. A year later, they embarked on the first experiment to test ideas about the preservation and extraction of DNA from insects in ancient amber. Poinar selected eight specimens that would potentially offer optimal preservation of DNA. In two of the eight insects were signs of DNA, but no hybridization experiments were done to determine whether the results were due to human contamination.

Soon, Wilson and Higuchi turned their attention to the quagga, a subspecies of plains zebra that went extinct in 1883. The study, lead by Russell Higuchi, used two short mitochondrial DNA sequences from the muscle and connective tissue from a 140 year-old quagga from the Natural History Museum in Mainz, Germany, and confirmed that the quagga was more closely related to zebras than to horses.
The survival of DNA in quagga tissue and in an Egyptian mummy created waves among the scientific community, and in the autumn of 1984, Wilson and his lab submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the first official research proposal to search for DNA in ancient and extinct organisms. They wrote: “This is the first proposal to study the possible utility of DNA to paleontology. If clonable DNA is present in many fossil bones and teeth and in insects included in amber, a new field, molecular paleontology, can arise.”



Jones, E.D., Ancient DNA: a history of the science before Jurassic Park; Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci (2018),

Poinar, G. O., & Hess, R. (1982). Ultrastructure of 40-million-year-old insect tissue.
Science, 215(4537), 1241–1242. DOI: 10.1126/science.215.4537.1241

Higuchi R, Bowman B, Freiberger M, Ryder OA, Wilson AC. DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family. Nature. 1984;312:282–284. doi: 10.1038/312282a0.

Peñalver, E. et al; Ticks parasitised feathered dinosaurs as revealed by Cretaceous amber assemblages, Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 472 (2017)