Ancient weevil yields oldest DNA specimen: Insect preserved in amber for 120 million years

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A WEEVIL alive when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, but preserved in amber for the past 120 million years, has provided scientists with the oldest known sample of genetic material.

The weevil's tale echoes Michael Crichton's book, Jurassic Park, and the Steven Spielberg film of the same title. In the book, scientists grow living dinosaurs from genetic material taken from insects trapped in amber tombs after having sucked dinosaur blood.

But the Californian scientists who separated the weevil DNA warn against taking the analogy too far. Cloning a whole, living animal from the ancient DNA they work with is still far beyond the reach of science.

The researchers aim to find a blood- sucking insect, such as a mosquito, preserved in amber with dinosaur blood in its gut. But the weevil would have fed on conifers, not dinosaurs.

The researchers, from the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, report in today's issue of the journal Nature that their specimen, at between 80 and 95 million years old, is more than four times older than DNA taken from previous record-holders.

The weevil, found in Lebanese amber, dates from the Cretaceous period, so is about 20 million years too young to have hailed from the Jurassic period that inspired the book and film. Amber, the orange resin from conifer trees, has remarkable preserving qualities. It will capture and hold even the finest hairs of an insect and stop its decay indefinitely, rather like a natural deep freeze.

Dr Lin Kay, of the Earth sciences directorate of the Natural Environment Research Council, said the Californian work was 'an amazing achievement'.

Raul Cano, head of the Californian team, said that as scientists look back at ancient DNA they may uncover useful genetic traits that have been lost in today's plants and animals.