nature's preservative

Jurassic Park II
Can scientists rejuvenate dinosaurs from cells trapped inside an insect in a hunk of amber. No. Not yet.

image of cells extracted from amber
Electron photomicrograph of an unidentified bacterium isolated from 20-35 million-year-old Dominican amber.
Courtesy of Drs. Paula Orkand and Chip Lambert, and Raul Cano.

But Raul Cano, a California Polytechnic State University microbiologist, has come close. No, he didn't try to bring back a triceratops. But he did try to rejuvenate a life form almost half as old (30 million years), and somewhat smaller (it's a bacterium).

It's one thing to recover strands of DNA from old amber. But what about recovering entire organisms?

And, in the past four years, Cano says he has succeeded in dormant bacteria from ancient bees (some are shown here). The bacteria apparently survived as spores (defined) inside the gut of a bee from amber found in the Dominican Republic.

Cano knows lots of people doubt that bacterial spores can live so long, so he spent three years testing and retesting his process before he published his discovery Revival and Identification of Bacterial Spores... (in the bibliography).

The Truth's in the Microbial Technique
Raul Cano knew people would doubt that he'd actually resurrected bacteria from bees trapped in ancient amber. So he used a battery of techniques to make sure he wasn't growing modern contaminating bacteria instead.

  • Cano's team did the experiment in a room that had not been used for similar experiments (that's because bacterial spores are extremely common in microbiology labs).

  • The work was done inside a laminar flow hood which excludes room air.

  • The amber was decontaminated before it was cracked open. Cano's team also tested the decontamination by coating other pieces of amber with bacteria, decontaminating them, and checking for bacteria.

  • They placed dishes with bacterial growth medium inside the hood; since they showed no contamination, the experimental conditions could be considered clean.

  • They probed a plain piece of amber to look for DNA (which should not have been present) to double-check the recovery procedures.
Did he succeed? "You can never be sure," says Cano. "We're looking at ways of assessing whether these claims are true. It's very difficult -- impossible -- to test a negative hypothesis." Still, Cano has a reputation as a careful microbiologist, and the first commandment of the science is to avoid contamination.

Did Cano Count Ancient Bacteria?
Two and one-half years after resurrecting the first bacterium, Cano says, "I began to believe" it is old, not a modern contaminant. Still, he says, he may never be able to silence every skeptic: "It's difficult-- impossible --to test a null hypothesis (defined)."

Cano claims he resurrected at least 30 to 40 species of bacteria from ancient spores, and grew them on culture plates. Now he's analyzing those bacteria. Most, he says, are members of the genus Bacillus, an ancient, spore-forming group of bacteria that is widely distributed today. Some members of the genus (Bacillus thuringiensis) are used for biological control of insects.

Analyzing the chemistry of the organisms, he's found a new antibiotic, which will be described soon at a scientific meeting. Using a microscope, he's also found what "may be a new model of cell division." Instead of dividing relatively symmetrically, it divides asymmetrically. (See the photo at right, courtesy of Raul Cano.)

He's also formed a company (Ambergene) which is trying to find industrial, agricultural and medicinal uses for the chemicals produced by his oldsters. In addition, Cano and former graduate student Monica Borucki were awarded U.S. patent #5,593,883 in March, 1997. The broad patent covered the recovery of bacteria and other ancient organisms, including fungi, viruses, pollen, and protozoa, from amber and other ancient resins. The patent was assigned to Cano's company, Ambergene Corp., of San Francisco.

Cano was one of many amber scientists who has confronted by skeptics who doubt that DNA can last millions of years, even under the protection of amber.

What do skeptics say?

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