Bringing Dinosaurs Back from the Dead

Reviving characteristics of dinosaurs by making sense of their genomic code

DNA provides a means to watch evolutionary processes as they occur. By extracting DNA from the preserved remains of extinct species, scientists can answer questions about the past while making predictions about our future. Dr. Beth Shapiro, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and co-director of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, extracts fragments of DNA from up to 700,000 year old bones and uses these to piece together the genomes of recently extinct organisms. The DNA preserved in these remains contains the history of that organism’s evolution, and can reveal how climate change and human population growth -- in particular over the last 150,000 years -- affected the distribution and diversity of organisms that are alive today. Her research contributes to evidence-based conservation by providing insights from the past that reveal strategies to protect and preserve species in the present. Additionally, her research can reveal why domestic species look and act the way they do, address how the distribution of species has changed over time, and appeal to our basic curiosities about ancient animals...even dinosaurs!

One extraordinary application of paleogenomics research is that DNA data extracted from both ancient and living species can be used predict what the genome sequence of very ancient, extinct species might have looked like -- species that, like dinosaurs, went extinct far too long ago for any DNA to be preserved. By comparing genomes of birds and reptiles, for example, it is possible to reconstruct computationally the genome sequence of the ancestor of all living birds -- a dinosaur -- and use that data to understand what made a dinosaur distinct.

Awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2009, Shapiro’s dedication to the sciences and rigorous approach to addressing new and exciting questions inspires researchers and novice dinosaur enthusiasts alike! For instance, her recent book, How to Clone a Mammoth: the Science of De-Extinction,asks if extinct species can be brought back to life. This compelling approach challenges science as we know it while drawing on the deepest parts of our imaginations, perhaps making what was once a science fiction plot an achievable reality. In short, Dr. Shapiro’s work shows that by understanding the intricacies of the genomic code, we can protect biodiversity while learning more about the fascinating world of dinosaurs and other extinct species.

Current research includes:

  • Engineering a Dinosaur: While it is impossible to clone a dinosaur or sequence dinosaur DNA directly, scientists can reconstruct the genome of the dinosaur computationally using data from living avian dinosaurs (birds). In combination with genome editing technologies, it is posisble to step backward through time to address questions about the evolution of dinosaur traits by creating animals whose genomes look like those genomes of the past.

  • Engineering Diversity: There are many animals that fail to thrive and are at risk of extinction. Dr. Shapiro hopes to adapt new technologies for genome editing to engineer diversity from the past into living species to provide them with adaptive changes. For instance, inserting mammoth DNA sequences into the genomes of elephants might allow elephants to survive in colder climates.

  • Hybridization Between Species: Dr. Shapiro investigates the evolutionary consequences of inter-species gene flow. As the climate changes, closely related but distinct species (such as brown bears and polar bears) are coming into contact and, sometimes, producing offspring. By accounting for how often hybridization happens and why it is evolutionarily important, she and her team are helping to figure out the evolutionary consequences of climate change-induced hybridization.

  • Extracting Ancient DNA: The quality and quantity of DNA recovered from preserved remains limits the conclusions that can come from its analysis. Dr. Shapiro and her team are developing technologies to extract more and better quality DNA from older and less well-preserved specimens so that they can expand the breadth of their ancient DNA analyses.

Bio

Prior to becoming a scientist, Dr. Beth Shapiro wanted to be a journalist. In fact, before her undergraduate career, she was a broadcast journalist where she appeared on local TV each morning delivering the news. When she began as a student at the University of Georgia, she was also the news director at a local radio station. With laughter, she shares the challenges of directing news while being a student, and how her career aspirations shifted toward studying science rather than journalism, and to becoming a science journalist. Her interests in the natural sciences was further developed by a 9-week course where she and other students studied geology and ecology while traveling across the country and camping along the way.

Eventually, Dr. Shapiro found that, in addition to being passionate about the subject matter, working as a scientists also provided the opportunity to travel around the world. Motivated by the combination of “exotic and semi-dangerous travel,” the opportunity to do something different every day, and the chance to tell stories that inspire people to care about something other than their daily lives, has led to a lifetime career in paleogenomics.

Aside from research, in her free time, Dr. Shapiro enjoys spending time with her two young children. They spend much of their time enjoying the beach where they search for fossils by the water. Additionally, Dr. Shapiro’s love of travel has remained as she has continued her academic pursuits!

Website: http://pgl.soe.ucsc.edu/

Awards

Packard Fellow, 2010

PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellow, 2010

National Geographic Emerging Explorer, 2010

MacArthur Fellow, 2009

Rhodes Scholar, 1999