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Name: Nathaniel
Status: Student
Grade:  9-12
Location: VA
Country: United States
Date: June 2007


Question:
Is it possible to extract DNA from mummified skin or amber? If so how close are we from recreating an extinct species?



Replies:
Nathaniel,

Even if we were able to extract sufficient successful DNA to "re"produce such an organism, and even if we could produce one of each sex, such a species would have trouble repopulating a species, because there would be very low genetic diversity. Any genetic problem or potential disease could quickly bring down the entire (small) population.

In my opinion, the only hope for reproducing such a species would be to find a lot of DNA from a lot of members of the species. This would enable, assuming successful capture of the inherent DNA, re-production of a species with enough genetic diversity to allow for interbreeding without the typical problems of relation/sibling interbreeding.

Thanks for using NEWTON!

Ric Rupnik


You can extract DNA from mummified remains and other old samples in some cases. However, in nearly every case the DNA is degraded, damaged, or only partially recoverable. Even if we recovered all the DNA intact, making the organism from its DNA is not something people know how to do, and are very, very far away from knowing it as well.

DNA is not quite a "blueprint" for an organism. It's not like a plan with directions on how to make an organism. There are many, many complicated interactions between chemicals in our bodies, and they depend on concentration. DNA is only a very small portion of the information needed to fully understand and make a living organism. And there are important theological questions related to this as well, which I will avoid for now.

As an example, look at the ingredients list on the side of a package of bread. If someone only gave you that list, could you make the bread? You might experiment with amounts, but how would you know that you had to bake the bread (the ingredients don't tell you anything about technique)? How would you know their order of mixing? DNA is like a list of hundreds of thousands of ingredients, except it's even more of a struggle because 1) we're not sure where one ingredient name stops and another begins, 2) the list is incomplete -- some ingredients get modified/changed/combined later, 3) the ingredients aren't in any kind of order (e.g. not in order of decreasing amount), 4) we don't know what order, amount, or what technique to combine them (some ingredients get used many times over, and they have different functions depending on where they are), 6) we couldn't necessarily make the amazingly complex structures of organisms even if we had all the right ingredients and amounts.

Alternatively, if the DNA you found were similar to a current organism, you might try to 'engineer' certain genes into that organism. It's very hard to engineer one gene, let alone multiple genes, though. Even then, the results may be very unlike what you expect -- the function of genes depends a great deal on where it is, how it's used, and what else is around it. One gene in one organism may not work the same in another organism.

I guess I'm saying this is just too complicated for us to achieve now, or any time soon. In the future, we may develop this knowledge -- it's probably not "impossible", but it's not imminent.

Hope this helps,
Burr


Even if we were able to extract DNA from an extinct species this doesn't mean that it would spontaneously assemble itself into an organism. There are many many more hurdles to overcome before that can happen. DNA needs to reside in a cell, and will need to be in an egg that can be fertilized. It would then need to be grown inside a surrogate mother. These are just a few of the steps.

vanhoeck


Jurassic Park notwithstanding, any DNA that would be extracted from fossils would almost certainly be highly fragmented and therefore not suitable for cloning an entire organism. A typical eukaryotic cell contains several billion base pairs worth of DNA distributed amongst 50 chromosomes, and each of these 50 DNA molecules would have been been originally comprised of approximately 40 million base pairs worth of DNA.

Ron Baker, Ph.D.



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