IN AN extraordinary echo of the Spielberg dinosaur film Jurassic Park, scientists have discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex blood cells in a fossil.
Palaeontologists working on the 65 million-year-old fossil are confident of extracting original DNA - the hereditary chemical - from the red blood cells, just as the Spielberg characters also isolate dinosaur DNA, extracting it from blood in a mosquito preserved in amber.
That, it is to be hoped, is where the merging of fact and fiction will end. In the film, DNA is used to reconstruct monsters that go on the rampage in a theme park. Such a cloning process, experts insist, would not be feasible.
But for palaeontologists everywhere the discovery may be cause for considerable excitement. It could allow them to get a far better genetic picture of dinosaurs and even to match fragments of genes from the blood cells found in the fossil with those of birds and crocodiles still living on the planet. The putative cells were detected inside the femur bone of an unusually well-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil excavated in Montana three years ago. While the outer layers had mineralised to form the fossil, some inner sections of marrow were more or less intact, still brown in colour.
'We've been trying everything we can think of to show that they're not red blood cells, but they still seem to be the real thing,' one expert said.
Others appear ready to believe the finding, including Dr Raul Cano, a molecular biologist from California Polytechnic State University, who recently reported in Nature that he had extracted DNA from a weevil entombed in amber for 135 million years.
'It's certainly plausible,' Dr Cano said. 'We have seen similar things ourselves.'
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