Two weeks into the production of Jurassic Park—on September 4, 1992—the Associated Press (AP) wire service carried the following news story:
- SAN FRANCISCO (AP)—A tam of California scientists has cloned a fragment of genetic material from an extinct stingless bee that has been preserved in amber more than 25 million years.The researches, who extracted some of the insect’s DNA and determined its exact molecular sequence, are attempting the new procedure on other amber-trapped ancient animals such as lizards, weevils and a biting midge that may have eaten dinosaur blood.If the midge consumed dinosaur blood, the researchers said they may be able to unlock the secrets of the mysterious extinct reptile and their evolution.The report on the first stage of the scientists’ work is being published in the current issue of the British Journal Medical Science Research by Raul J. Cano, a molecular biologist at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and entomologist George O. Poinar Jr. of the University of California’s College of Natural Resources in Berkeley.
While the research seems to echo Jurassic Park, the novel about scientists who bring dinosaurs back to life by cloning their DNA, Poinar said the real purpose of the experiment is to prove that it is possible to extract viable DNA from extinct animals and to seek firm new lines of evidence of an “evolutionary clock” that shows the pace of evolution over geologic time.
In a report published this week, the researchers described how they were able to extract bits of muscle tissue from the wings of four of the bees who were preserved virtually intact in the resinous sap of an extinct tree.
The sap became amber as it solidified over hundreds of years. Poinar has collected insects and the fur of animals found in a mine in the Dominican Republic, where the tree lived 25 million to 40 million years ago.
Poinar’s son Hendrick, a Cal Poly graduate student, and David W. Roubik, a Smithsonian Institution bee expert from Panama, are also part of the team.
The bee used in the experiment was a member of the species Propledia dominicana, an extinct ancestor of the tropical stingless bee that bite rather than sting and that are widespread throughout the world today.
The sequencing of the ancient DNA shows the about 7 percent o the bee’s original genetic material has changed in contemporary bees—a valuable clue to the rate at which evolution of bees has progressed, Cano and Poinar said.