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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge