Historical DNA – 1st step to a Jurassic Park?

It was announced on 4th February that a set of bones excavated from a car park in Leicester had been confirmed via CT scans and carbon dating to be those of Richard III, the last king of England to have been killed in battle. From the shape of the skeleton virtual reconstructions have been carried out to show what he would have looked like, which showed him to be in better condition that is recorded throughout history. He did indeed appear to have a curved spine as shown in many historical records, but not the reported withered arm. The excavation also showed what sort of injuries Richard may have sustained in his final battle, with several head wounds, and a particularly gruesome ‘humiliation’ injury to the pelvic bone. DNA taken from the skeleton was a genetic match to living female relatives of the former king, which ultimately shows that DNA can remain traceable for hundreds of years within a line of descendants; in this instance through the maternal line. This case was lucky in that there is only one remaining female descendant to Richard III, who has no children.

DNA profiling is a tool that has been used extensively in police forces around the world for determining the truth in murder cases and other such investigations. But there is another side to this as the story leads us to ask the question – can we use historical DNA to revive an extinct species? This was a possibility that was vividly brought to life in the hugely popular 90s film “Jurassic Park”, with the revival of dinosaurs on a remote island with the aim of creating a theme park. Of course, it all ended in disaster with the release of the deadlier of these species (the T-Rex and velociraptor), but there is certainly an opportunity in reality to concentrate on some of the more timid creatures that have become extinct in recent years. Animals such as the baiji dolphin, which became extinct in 2006, would be happily welcomed back to the world. And there is also the possibility of using historical DNA to help prevent endangered species from becoming extinct in the first place. For example, the south China tiger or the leatherback turtle would greatly benefit from the use of historical DNA to help boost population numbers due to both species being critically endangered.

Graham Smith

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