Indominus rex is not your first genetically modified dinosaur…

Jurassic World just came out on BlueRay and digital download. Guess what I watched this week.

I had rip-roaring good time watching Jurassic World when it came out in theatres so I was looking forward to another viewing. The special effects were fabulous and the story was straightforward, and I got to watch Chris Pratt ride a Triumph motorcycle alongside velociraptors. The Jurassic World theme park was a fascinating extrapolation of what could have happened if the original Jurassic Park had managed to get off the ground. I enjoyed watching the movie from a science communication/museum exhibits perspective too. The Hammond Creation Centre had the interactive displays and holographic teaching tools that looked pretty effective. The movie, as a whole also touched on the ethics of animals in captivity and animal management.

The movie had some problems. Owen was not clicker training properly,  new paleontology research wasn’t integrated into the movie’s dinos, there was a lot of running in stilettos and please don’t get me started in the number of POCs who die in the movie. Hollywood, I thought we’d gotten past this. Regardless, I had fun watching the movie and I wanted to be a velociraptor. (Not own one. I just wanted to be one.)

I was only six when Jurassic Park first came out in theatres and it was certainly not appropriate for me at that age. Though, I remember watching the video over and over when I was about eight or nine. I loved Jurassic Park. It was scary and exciting. It was about brave kids and older an sister and paleontologist action heroes, female scientists and velociraptors and the T-Rex. It was also a sci-fi story about DNA. Jurassic World is also about genetics.

Above is the Jurassic World trailer that was released in November 2014. Even then, I was pretty excited. However, I had a bit of an eye-roll moment when one of the main characters, Claire Dearing, said:

“We have our first, genetically modified hybrid.”

Part of me couldn’t help but think that the term “genetically modified” got thrown in for the ‘creepy science’ factor.

What are genetically modified organisms?

A genetically modified organism is an organism that has had DNA fragments inserted into its genetic code meaning that it have a new genetic make-up.

We have our first genetically modified hybridHow is this different to breeding? One could argue that breeding is more ‘natural’, but our artificial selection is anything but ‘natural’. (The ‘unnaturalness’ is in the name: artificial selection). We select organisms for traits we like. Whether or not those traits are useful in a natural setting or even beneficial to the organism is irrelevant. We get what we want. In a very general sense, artificial selection through breeding is the earliest form of genetic engineering.

When we breed animals or plants we make more of the things we like. Anything we don’t like doesn’t get to breed. But despite the fact that our breeding is selecting for traits that we like, we don’t know exactly what we’re doing on a genetic level. This can mean that we get some weird effects that we don’t select for. Take dogs for example. We selectively bred them for ‘tameness’, but then we got a whole host of other traits like floppy ears and weird coat colours and smooshy faces and curly tails. We didn’t breed for that, but we got it when we red to make dogs friendly to humans. That’s genetics for you.

If we make a genetically modified organism, we skip the breeding part and go straight to the gene(s) that we’re interested. For example, let’s say that we know the gene that is responsible for making growth hormone. We could modify that gene so that it: makes more growth hormone, makes less hormone, or we can shut it down entirely. Scientists are very targeted when they perform genetic modification. They know exactly what they’re looking for in the genetic code.

Modifying how genes in an organism works with DNA fragments is one way of making a genetically modified organism. Another way is to insert genes from other organisms. If those genes come from similar species then the genetic information would be called “cis-genic”. If the DNA came from organisms that could never interbreed the genetic information and the resulting GM organism is called “transgenic”.

The mouse in the middle is a regular mouse and the other two are transgenic mice that make green flourescent protein. They were used for cancer research.

An example of a cisgenic organism would be a crop with high yields that is then given a gene from a related plant that helps with disease resistance. The benefit of cisgenic organism over just cross-breeding is that you get the specific trait you want without lots of other organisms that don’t have what you want. Breeding is messy as I described with the dog example. With cisgenic organisms, you don’t have to worry about a heap of variability because you’re being selective about the gene you want to introduce.

An example of a transgenic organism would be a mouse with green fluorescent proteins from a jellyfish. These are called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) transgenic mice and whereever there are green flourescent proteins, the mouse will glow green under black light. A mouse and a jelly fish are not going to make babies, but the gene for GFP can be attached to a mouse gene that researchers are interested in. This is a useful tool because whenever that mouse’s gene is turned on it does its job and makes GFP. GFP is vital to biomedical researchers who want to know where a specific part of the genetic code is turned on.

Now that I’ve explained what a GMO is and how they can be made, do you notice anything odd about Claire’s statement?

We have our first genetically modified hybrid

Based on what I said about different kinds of GMOs technically, Indominus rex isn’t a hybrid. ‘Hybrid’ is the term used for the result of breeding. There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park so Indominus rex is a transgenic animal (animal with the DNA of an unrelated species).

But there’s more. Did you watch the first Jurassic Park? Here’s a clip that features Mr. DNA. This scene stuck with me as a kid and into adulthood. I think it was the first time I learned about DNA.

Okay, so the scientists had dino DNA and they did what? They made changes to the code? They inserted DNA from other organisms? That sounds a lot like transgenic genetic modification.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

So the reason for my eye-roll during the trailer was a combination of the movie’s use of ‘hot button’ science terms and the fact that every dinosaur of Isla Nublar is a genetically modified transgenic organism. They covered that in the first movie.

Dr. Wu the lead researcher from Jurassic World articulated this fact perfectly in a conversation with Jurassic World’s CEO. Dr. Wu had this to say about Indominus rex and the park in general:

Bigger! Scarier! ‘Cooler’ is the word I believed you used in the memo. You cannot have an animal with exaggerated predatory features without the corresponding behavioural traits.
You are acting like we’re engaged in some sort of mad science. But we are doing what we have done from the beginning. Nothing in Jurassic World is natural. We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if their genetic code was pure many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality you asked for more teeth.

Dr. Wu pointed out the disconnect between what was being marketed to possible corporate sponsors and the reality of the entire part. The statement “nothing in Jurassic World is natural” resonated with me when I watched the movie in theaters. So did his quote about exaggerated predatory features corresponding to predatory behaviours.

Jurassic World Facebook page trio

These images from the Jurassic World Facebook page are an interesting example of both sleek corporate-style science communication and the notion that all dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are transgenic GMOs.

Can we use genetic modification to engineer dinosaurs?

Aside from the fact that DNA is very poorly preserved in fossils, Mr. DNA is not entirely accurate in his description of what DNA does. While DNA provides all of the information to create an organism, DNA is less of a blueprint and more of an instructional manual. Your DNA is like a 5,000 page unformatted, un-punctuated instructional manual written in a teeny-tiny font. If you were to stretch out all of the DNA in one cell it could span the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Let’s stick with the blueprint vs. instructional manual metaphor for a moment. If DNA was like a blueprint filling in the gaps in the code would be a bit like a ‘connect the dots activity’. But DNA is not a blueprint. The genetic code does not tell us what the organism looks like.

DNA is more like a manual. If there are gaps in an organisms genetic code, it’s like someone handed us a seven inch thick instruction manual that is obviously missing pages and very definitely missing whole chapters. The table of contents is gone, so we have no idea how many pages we’re supposed to have. We don’t know how many pages are missing, we don’t know what information was on those pages, nor do we know if we’re supposed to use a flathead screwdriver, Philips or those little s-shaped tools from IKEA. Oh, and this manual has no diagrams, so good luck connecting the thigh bone to the hip bone based on a verbal description of how to make the femur from calcium carbonate.

Even in extant species (species that are alive today), we can’t just take the DNA and 3-d print a plant or an animal based on its instructions it. (Though it would be really cool if we could.) DNA is a vital, complex and confusing mystery of life. Our cells are good at reading our DNA and doing their job based on it’s instructions. We may be made of cells, but we cannot just read DNA and figure out what we’re supposed to do.

So, unfortunately we cannot genetically engineer dinosaurs without their complete genetic code. The complete code could come from multiple individuals, but we couldn’t just patch the gaps with DNA from other organisms.

GMOs and Public Perception

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are big news, especially with regards to food. Public perception of GMOs varies by region. The EU has very tight regulations on GMOs in the food supply. Whereas rules about production, labeling and use of GMO in our food supply are less rigid in North America.

GMO’s are the ‘scary science’ of the 21st century much in the same way that ‘cloning’ was for in late 1990’s. Cloning of various non-mammals (frogs and fish) had been around since the 1950s and 1960s respectively. But Dolly, the first cloned mammal was born in 1996, three years after Jurassic Park was released in theatres. I remember getting into ethical discussions about cloning with my parents as a kid and I remembre it being a really hot-button topic back then. People don’t talk about cloning so much now. Stem cell research is pretty hot-button, but as far as genetic engineering goes, genetically modified organisms are the thing that most people talk about.

While research institutions decry a lack of public understanding as being responsible for why people don’t like GMOs, research suggests that might not be the case. Sometimes the public doesn’t understand the technology behind GMOs. But their concerns are often so much bigger than that. People may simply be wary of a lack of regulations and controls. They may have concerns about who has a vested interest in the products of GMO research and that’s understandable. There are a lot social and corporate-ethical problems surrounding GMOs even if they are deemed ‘safe’ or have important uses.

I still think that Jurassic World tossed in the ‘genetically modified hybrid’ description to incite a bit of fear. According to Jurassic World, what’s scarier than a dinosaur?

A corporately sponsored genetically modified dinosaur.


Dr Ash Signature

P.S. What are your thoughts? Have you seen Jurassic World? What did you think about the science. Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.


Jurassic World TM images were yoinked from the Jurassic World Facebook page which is technically sharable content and I’m technically allowed to use for personals reasons. Hopefully, I don’t go to jail for using them.

“GFP Mice 01” by see above – Ingrid Moen, Charlotte Jevne, Jian Wang, Karl-Henning Kalland, Martha Chekenya, Lars A Akslen, Linda Sleire, Per Ø Enger, Rolf K Reed, Anne M Øyan and Linda EB Stuhr: Gene expression in tumor cells and stroma in dsRed 4T1 tumors in eGFP-expressing mice with and without enhanced oxygenation. In: BMC Cancer. 2012, 12:21. doi:10.1186/1471-2407-12-21 PDF. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GFP_Mice_01.jpg#/media/File:GFP_Mice_01.jpg

Science Resources:

Hug, K. (2007). Genetically modified organisms: do the benefits outweigh the risks?. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 44(2), 87-99.

Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths. EMBO reports, 2(7), 545-548.

No Comments

Leave a Reply