Amber bee eclipses `Jurassic Park' fiction

BY STEVE CONNOR

Science Correspondent

Microbes entombed in fossilised amber for up to 130 million years have been revived by scientists who believe the work eclipses even the fictional exploits of Jurassic Park.

The microbes, which first lived when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, are growing in a California laboratory under high security. All were revived from spores found in the intestines of insects that were trapped in tree resin which became fossilised amber - the fictional source of Jurassic Park's ``dinosaur DNA''.

The researchers, from the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, said they have isolated up to 1,500 different species of micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, from insects encased for between 2 million and 130 million years.

Raul Cano, a Cuban-born scientist who led the research, said amber insects in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which Steven Spielberg adapted into a film, yielded only DNA whereas his research resulted in the revival of microbes that lived.

Dr Cano said the work opened the possibility of investigating a ``parallel universe'' of prehistoric micro-organisms which could provide a source of drugs, antibiotics, industrial enzymes and other biotechnology products. If any revived prehistoric microbes resembled present-day human infections, they would be destroyed.

California Polytechnic State University has helped to set up a biotechnology company, Ambergene, which intends to develop commercial products from the microbes. Robin Steele, company president, said precautions are being taken to ensure microbes do not escape.

Because the scientists may have unwittingly contaminated their experimental material with modern-day microbes, they have carried out elaborate cross- checking to ensure the results are valid.

A stingless bee, fossilised in amber for between 25 million and 40 million years, provided proof the discovery was genuine, Dr Cano said. The research is published in Science today.

Microbial spores are packets of genetic material in a protective shell and designed to withstand long periods of dormancy but scientists are astounded that they could still be active after millions of years.

Lifeline to past, page 3

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