Finding a blood-filled mosquito doesn't mean we can recreate Jurassic Park

Scientists have discovered a preserved mosquito like the one from that dinosaur film for the first time, but alas, dino-cloning will still be impossible.

It must be frustrating to be a palaeontologist announcing anything to do with mosquitoes. Dale Greenwalt from the US National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC (and a team of fellow researchers) has found a fossil of a female mosquito with an engorged abdomen - that is, it’s full of blood. But before you begin looking for a Pacific island on which to build your Jurassic Park, it’s really not going to let us clone dinosaurs. Really. Stop dreaming, it's not happening.

First, here’s Ed Yong of Nature laying out the discovery:

Although scientists have found fossils of suspected blood-sucking insects, the creatures' feeding habits have mostly been inferred from their anatomy or the presence of blood-borne parasites in their guts. But Greenwalt's fossilized mosquito contains molecules that provide strong evidence of blood-feeding among ancient insects back to 46 million years ago. It is a fortunate find. “The abdomen of a blood-engorged mosquito is like a balloon ready to burst. It is very fragile,” says Greenwalt. “The chances that it wouldn’t have disintegrated prior to fossilization were infinitesimally small.”

In Jurassic Park, it’s all about amber, which preserved the mosquitoes and protected the dinosaur blood from decaying - Richard Attenborough even has a chunk of it on the end of his cane, it’s that important.

But in real life, this is the first time that any such blood-carrying mosquito this old has been found - and it’s not even amber, it was found in shale rock. Plus, there’s so little blood - or, rather, trace materials like iron and porphyrin (both stuff that makes up haemoglobin) - that they could only prove that it wasn’t organic matter from the mosquito itself because a male mozzie had also been fossilised (with empty belly) right next to the female. Since males don’t drink blood, that helped the scientists prove the female had a full stomach when it died.

But it’s a mosquito with blood in it, so we can clone a dinosaur now, right? Sorry, nope. Not even close. First, this mosquito died 19 million years after the dinosaurs are believed to have become extinct. So that isn’t dinosaur blood.

Secondly, and much more importantly, is that we are never going to be able to clone a dinosaur this way because DNA cannot survive in a useable form for much more than a few thousand years at best. That’s because it has a half-life of roughly 500 years.

Half-lives are usually used when talking about radiation, and mean the amount of time it takes half of something to decay (on average). So for uranium that’s 703.8 million years, which explains why we can still find some in the ground despite the Earth being roughly 4.5 billion years old.

Experiments conducted on bird bones and with bees preserved in amber have shown that DNA’s half-life is likely 521 years on average, and that trying to find traces of useable DNA in fossils is pretty much pointless in anything older than 10,600 years. Groups of scientists around the world are trying very hard to clone 10,000-year-old mammoths found frozen in the Arctic tundra, and they're struggling despite finding stuff like actual, non-fossil blood and cells.

In fact, this mosquito is a remarkable discovery just for what it is, not for any science fiction fantasies. We now have proof that mosquitoes were blood-sucking nuisances even 19 million years ago, and this is only the fifth time a fossilised blood-sucking insect has been found. It also confirms earlier, controversial discoveries of seemingly-intact blood cells within other dinosaur fossils - cells which nobody thought could last that long.

So it’s not all bad. Just don’t tell Richard Attenborough. He will be very disappointed.

Not just any mosquito - this one's full of blood. Photo: PNAS/Greenwalt et al

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear