Can Dinosaurs Be Brought Back to Life Via Cloning? Experts Explain

Earlier this year, researchers discovered what was reported to be the oldest ancient DNA on record—belonging to mammoths.

The finding was documented in a study published in the journal Nature in February. The genomic mammoth DNA samples, in excess of a million years old, were found in teeth from the huge now-extinct animals that had been stored in permafrost in eastern Siberia.

Scientists had thought it possible that, if storage conditions were right, ancient DNA could live beyond that million year milestone. Previously the oldest known DNA sample was that of a horse, up to 780,000 years old.

Ancient DNA samples sometimes prompt questions about potentially bringing extinct animals back to life through advances in cloning technology.

The theory is that surviving DNA can be implanted into an egg cell and nurtured so that they can grow, though the process has proved difficult.

Ancient DNA cloning has captured people's imagination for years, including the blockbuster Jurassic Park film franchise (based on the books by Michael Crichton) in which dinosaurs were brought back from extinction using similar techniques.

In the real world, would it be possible to bring back dinosaurs with cloning technology? Susannah Maidment, senior researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences at The Natural History Museum, thinks not.

Maidment told Newsweek: "There's two ways that people have thought about this problem. People have explored whether they could get mammoth DNA and clone a mammoth.

"The problem with dinosaurs is that the oldest DNA that we have in the fossil record is about a million years old, and dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago."

This is a problem because while some soft tissues and proteins can be preserved over large geologic timescales, DNA, as far as scientists know, cannot. "And that's the kind of fundamental problem," Maidment added. "We don't have dinosaur DNA."

Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist and professor at the University of California Santa Cruz's Genomics Institute, echoed the point. Because there is no surviving dinosaur DNA, she told Newsweek, "there will be no dinosaur clones."

But there is one other potential avenue to consider when bringing back dinosaurs—the fact that they are still here, except we call them birds.

As Julia Clarke, a paleontologist and professor with the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, told Live Science in 2020: "Birds are living dinosaurs, just as we are mammals… All of the species of birds we have today are descendants of one lineage of dinosaur: the theropod dinosaurs."

The average pigeon is not what most people will imagine when asked to bring to mind a dinosaur, but this bird-dinosaur lineage does present the idea that dinosaur-like traits could be reverse-engineered out of birds.

For Maidment, this possibility is not compelling. She said: "So there's kind of this idea that you can tweak their genome to express or not express various genes that might make them more like dinosaurs… but that doesn't give you a dinosaur."

In any case, bringing back dinosaurs does present a number of ethical qualms, Maidment adds, who questions who would own them, what rights they would have, and where they would fit into the ecosystem.

Using the stegosaurus as an example, she said: "The plants that they fed on went extinct hundreds of millions of years ago. There's this whole ethical thing around it that I think is much less talked about, but much more of a concern."

For now, non-bird dinosaurs remain firmly in the realm of fiction and history.

T-Rex skeleton
A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, called Sue, on display at Union Station in Washington D.C., June 2000. Dinosaurs went extinct tens of millions of years ago. Mark Wilson/Newsmakers / Getty