Interview with a Jurassic Park Paleobiologist

An elephant mosquito from Poinar’s collection. Photo by George Poinar, Jr. via Science Friday.

Many of our readers have likely read or watched Jurassic Park, or one of the sequels of the film, and know that the DNA for the fictionally first-recreated dinosaur came from the blood sample within a giant mosquito trapped inside prehistoric amber. Well, Michael Crichton actually got this idea from a true scientific discovery, although it didn’t revolve around dinosaurs. We’ve discussed de-extinction on the blog before, and actually featured the paleobiologist referred to in this post’s title a couple months ago. Now, Chau Tu at Science Friday has interviewed the scientist, George Poinar, Jr., regarding his experience working with amber-clad specimens from millions of years ago, his thoughts on de-extinction, and more:

Poinar would find, among other specimens, the oldest known bee, the first known bat fly fossil, and the most complete flower from the Cretaceous Period. And just this past February, he co-authored a paper in Nature Plants describing a new species of neotropical flower found in amber from the mid-Tertiary Period.

Science Friday recently spoke with Poinar, 79, now a courtesy professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University, about what led him to investigate specimens trapped in amber, his thoughts on de-extinction, and his inspirations.

Insects seem to pique your curiosity. How did you first get interested in entomology?
That’s a long story, because my father was a musician, and he wanted me to be a musician also. When I was 5 years old, I was practicing an hour a day on the violin and the piano, taking lessons. But as I grew older, I eventually rebelled against it.

I was naturally attracted to nature. It started with birds first. When I eventually went to Cornell, I decided I was going to major in ornithology. I started out with Dr. [Charles] Sibley there, and after working with him for a while, we decided that I should take a minor. I moved over and I worked with Dr. [Loren] Petri in botany for a while. And then I had an opportunity to do some summer work with an entomologist. That’s when I first became interested in insects.

But I was always interested in amber from a very young age. It was my mother who read passages from a book by Willy Ley called Dragons in Amber. On the front page of it was a little drawing of a weevil in amber, and that figure kind of imprinted on my brain. When I was doing my Ph.D. work, I worked on weevils. So everything kind of came together and by now, of course, I’ve described, with colleagues, about 100 different types of weevils in amber.

How did you begin working with amber as a scientific object?
The weevils led to nematodes—nematodes are small roundworms, and I studied those that were associated with insects. One day at UC Berkeley, Joe Peck from the Department of Paleontology came by and he said, ‘You work with nematodes; how would you like to look at some nematodes in amber that we collected from Mexico?’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ So I went over there and he showed me some pieces of amber, and one had a whole family of nematodes in it!

I studied these and then came out with my first paper on amber, about nematodes in Mexican amber. That was back in 1977. After publishing that, then I became interested at looking at more amber. People contacted me and said, ‘We have some amber pieces, would you be interested in looking at those?’ Everything kind of grew from there.

What led to your discovery that cell organelles could be preserved in specimens ensconced in amber?
My wife was an electron microscopist then at Berkeley, working in the same department, and I decided to see whether there might be some tissue remaining [in specimens trapped in amber]. So she sectioned one of the specimens that we had—a fly in Baltic amber—and discovered then that yes, the preservative qualities of amber were so great that they actually preserved intact cell organelles, such as nuclei, lipids, mitochondria, and things like that. That was probably one of the most exciting projects I ever worked on, to make that discovery along with my wife, Roberta.

Read the rest of the original interview here.

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