Monday, 29 September 2014

Could dinosaur DNA provide cures for human diseases?

Despite Jurassic Park, we can't use dinosaur DNA for anything, because we haven't got any, but we could learn something from the way dinosaurs survived injuries.

In July 2014, the Daily Mail carried a headline 'Could dinosaur DNA provide cures for serious human illness? Ancient fossils reveal evidence of powerful immune systems beating diseases such as cancer.' This seems very impressive - and there is an interesting health story here, but the headline is totally misleading.

Researchers examining a 72 million year old dinosaur skeleton had found evidence that it had survived serious injuries that a mammal would not be able to survive, and speculated that it might be that the animals had healing abilities that could be of benefit, if we could discover the mechanisms behind them. The only way this would be possible is if similar effects can be found in modern day relations of dinosaurs. The closest living relations are birds, but it has been suggested that a better model would be alligators and crocodiles, which are much more distantly related, but which do seem to resist infection despite living in bacteria-loaded environments.

However, the headline itself is pure science fiction. Despite the entertaining possibilities of Jurassic Park, dinosaur DNA simply doesn't exist any more. DNA deteriorates with time, and however it is preserved, it cannot last longer than around 6 to 7 million years. (The oldest sample found to date isn around half a million years old.) As the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, dinosaur DNA can't do anything for us at all.

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