How ancient DNA hit the headlines – Nature.com

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Ancient DNA has been extracted from insects trapped in amber.Credit: Frank Fox/Science Photo Library

Ancient DNA: The Making of a Celebrity Science Elizabeth D. Jones Yale Univ. Press (2022)

In 1993, the day after the film Jurassic Park premiered in Washington DC, Nature reported the sequencing of DNA from a weevil encased in amber more than 120 million years ago. Then, in 2015, days before the global premiere of a sequel, Jurassic World, Nature Communications published evidence for the preservation of red blood cells and proteins in a 75-million-year-old dinosaur sample. Coincidence? The authors of the 1993 paper (R. J. Cano et al. Nature 363, 536–538; 1993) insisted it was, notes historian of science Elizabeth Jones. One of the co-authors of the 2015 paper (S. Bertazzo et al. Nature Commun. 6, 7352; 2015) told me theirs was, too: “100%”.

These tantalizing parallels between life and art open Jones’s book Ancient DNA, a fun and thought-provoking introduction to the origins, politics and motivations of research into age-old genomes. Through interviews with more than 50 scientists who work in ancient DNA or collaborate with people in the field, Jones builds a wry, often wise, study of science as a very human endeavour. She makes a powerful case that ancient-DNA research feeds off media attention as much as the media feeds off it: they are twin stars locked in a binary system, each with storytelling at its core.

This relationship is exemplified by what one of her interviewers calls the ‘Jurassic Park effect’. The blockbuster novel by Michael Crichton on which the film was based burst onto the scene in 1990 while the field was still young and testing its limits (the first ancient-DNA conference took place the following year), capturing the imaginations of scientists and the public alike. Jones’s participants report that early attempts to extract DNA from amber were inspired by the novel. The 1993 movie is credited with prompting £2 million (US$2.6 million in today’s terms) in UK government funding for ancient-biomolecule research. But this is, as Jones shows, a more complex situation than science jumping onto a popular bandwagon.

In April 1984, seven months before the first ancient-DNA sequence was even published, she recounts, newspapers across the United States announced the genetic resurrection of a woolly mammoth. They had fallen for an April Fool’s Day prank in MIT Technology Review. People, it seems, were ready to believe. When, that November, a pioneering biomolecular group reported a 229-base-pair sequence of DNA extracted from the 140-year-old skin of a quagga (Equus quagga quagga), it was the hope of ‘bringing back’ the extinct subspecies of zebra that made the headlines — something not mentioned in the paper (R. Higuchi et al. Nature 312, 282–284; 1984).

De-extinction was part of the zeitgeist, attracting a disparate group of scientists, futurists and writers such as Crichton, Jones suggests, that formed the basis of both the Jurassic Park franchise and the research field now recognized as ancient DNA.

Despite many efforts, none of the early reports of dinosaur-era DNA have stood the test of time. The current record for oldest recovered DNA sequence, from a mammoth, stands at a more cautious, although still remarkable, one million years old (T. van der Valk et al. Nature 591, 265–269; 2021). In the three decades since Jurassic Park, the field has tried to distance itself from de-extinction and dinosaurs in a quest for credibility, shifting its focus to other headline-grabbing topics including human origins and prehistory. Nonetheless, Jones argues, that first quagga paper set the template for ancient-DNA research: newsworthy studies, published in ‘top-tier’ journals.

Jones’s interviewees are frank about the extent to which media attention sets their research agenda. They often choose charismatic subject matter and species, thinking these carry weight with funders and journal editors. Who, asks one researcher, “cares about Arabidopsis?!”. (Answer: all of us, given that the tiny brassica is a workhorse of genetics and plant science.)

I suspect Jones is concerned that her characterization won’t go down well with her interviewees, aware that celebrity is often equated to superficiality. She needn’t worry: cognoscenti will be having far too much fun guessing which researcher said what, about whom, among the frank and often witty quotations (“That’s some of my best material,” a colleague told me, bemoaning their anonymity). Jones is at pains to stress that these media skills are a good thing, propelling the field forward.

She judges success by the same inward-looking lights as her interviewees — funding, top-tier papers and ‘impact’ are good for careers, but are they good for science? In charting the history of this relatively young field that has developed in tandem with metric- and impact-led agendas in academia, Jones’s book provides a window into how these shape (and maybe narrow) research that is relevant to us all, not just a ‘celebrity science’ such as ancient DNA.

As a ‘celebrity’, it seems only fitting that ancient DNA should get its own funny, revealing biography before it turns 50. So what is next? The growth and success of ancient-DNA research means that it is no longer a coherent field, so much as a tool used by other disciplines, and better for it. Its technical limits are still being pushed, and there’s growing attention to other ancient biomolecules, such as RNA and proteins. At the same time, increasingly credible reports of remarkable biomolecular preservation in fossils tens of millions of years old, including dinosaurs, are being published.

Will the ancient-DNA big-hitters go back in time once more? The latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World Dominion, premieres in June; perhaps we’ll find out.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.