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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times