Brontosaurus Dolly: Feasibility of dinosaur cloning?

In response to an off topic question, posed during a research methodology lecture, I was humbled by the response of one logically minded undergraduate.

Can we clone a dinosaur? Not as far as I know, but apparently the internet knows more. An Australian billionaire by the name of Clive palmer, has hinted at the possibility of funding research for the purpose of cloning a dinosaur. First of all, we would have to look at a long list of factors governing its feasibility. Initial impressions would suggest that eccentric billionaire, Clive Palmer, is posing a challenge, laced with more humor than sincere ambition. The reality of live dinosaurs should in my mind, present a slightly larger public fascination than even the sensational athletic prowess on display at the recently concluded London Olympics.

Then a student responded, that they have indeed succeeded in cloning a dinosaur, which according to a bit of research, is postulated by some individual, to have occurred at the University of Florida. At first glance, it seemed to be too good to be true, and this opinion has since prevailed.

This publication seems at odds with the research publications and news from the University of Florida’s homepage. I find it strange, that they would have failed to be the first ones to make public this discovery, especially considering the funding (and inadvertent criticism) they would be privy to. But the apparently online-presence-deprived Dr. Norman Trudell, Biology Professor at UF, has neglected several important aspects considering the potential cloning of dinosaurs, and as it may happen, even more recently extinct species, of which he have near complete DNA databases.

But let us steer away from the breaking news of cloned dinosaurs and get into the challenges of feasibility surrounding the cloning of an extinct species.

Is Clive Palmer wasting his time and money? More importantly, is he potentially monopolizing resources that can best be allocated to disciplines related to more pressing public concerns, such as those of cancer and HIV?

The cloning of previous organisms such as the immortally famous (now deceased), Dolly, required some key elements, that is currently in short supply, with respect to dinosaurs. Dolly was cloned using a technique called nuclear transfer, where the nucleus of a somatic cell from primary in vitro cell culture, is introduced to an enucleated oocyte. The oocyte containing a full diploid complement, complete with all associated structural and regulatory protein, is transferred to a surrogate, until it reaches terminal gestational development.

From what I could gather, modern research has not yet produced a complete DNA sequence from any species that has retired from existence during ancient times, which includes many who have gone extinct far more recently than did the dinosaurs. With extensive biological and physiochemical DNA damage that far exceeds 60 million years, I have very little doubt that the scientific community might be expecting the recovery of an intact dinosaur genome any time soon and since we are only just beginning to understand the cellular physiology of extinct animals, the synthesis of a viable genome is as yet, probably even less likely.

According an article published by Nature (Ancient Biomolecules in Quaternary peleocology), we are seeing significant technological advances that increases the rate at which ancient DNA and other biomolecules can be analyzed, yet the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), does not mention any entry of DNA sequences that is related to the Apatosaurus (Dinosaur postulated to have been cloned).

Even if – with the advances made hitherto – we are capable of extracting sufficient quantities of DNA from paleontological specimens to obtain a complete DNA sequence of some prehistoric species, we would still be very far away from understanding the organization and nuclear morphology of ancient chromatin. I would think that this would make any attempts at cloning redundant. Even if, by some means, assembly of a complete and viable sequence (comparative to that taken from somatic cells in Dolly’s case) could be theoretically feasible (perhaps in cell culture of cells from a species with a close phylogenetic association), there would exist but still, a vast number of challenges in ‘interspecies’ nuclear transfer. There is no telling what difficulties such imperfect chromatin organization could produce, let alone the compatibility, or probable incompatibility of genes and gene products of donor DNA, with cellular components of the oocyte, that has had a hundred million odd years to evolve.

The question remains though, if there should be a public denouncement of this sort of frivolous allocation of resources, to the likes of unrealistic ambition, even if privately funded? This researcher remains a skeptic as to it feasibility, yet I firmly encourage any private funding that will, no doubt, result in the advancement of technologies that could in the future be applied for numerous ambitions, other than frivolity.

In reality, we are unlikely to see this research endeavor materialize to anything more than debated fantasy. Even if Clive Palmer is pursuing this avenue of research merely to satisfy personal curiosity, it may still inadvertently lead to the development of a technology, or even technique, that could justify such expenditure many times over. In any case though, he will be contributing to the advancement of science, or at least propagating some humor in a scientific community, that at times, seems much deprived thereof.

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