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The blood of a monkey that lived 20 to 30 million years ago is teaching modern scientists about early primates, insects and diseases, thanks to an amber specimen purchased on eBay that was sent to the man who inspired “Jurassic Park.”
It’s one thing to find the fossilized remains of a dinosaur — humans are constantly digging into the earth, and those gigantic bones tend to attract attention. To find a fossilized insect, however, takes something special. Amber, the fossilized resin or sap of a tree, is the perfect substance in which to preserve tiny creatures. A wide variety of insects has been found preserved within amber.
The discovery of a blood-swollen tick preserved in a piece of amber mined in the Dominican Republic marks the first discovery of fossilized blood cells from a prehistoric mammal. The monkey’s blood was trapped within the tick, which was likely removed by another monkey and tossed into the tree, where it became stuck in sap and became fossilized and ultimately buried under layers of earth.
After it was found by miners, the amber landed in the hands of Vincent Calabrese, a scientist who sells specimens online. It was purchased by tennis player Alex Brown, a collector who happened to know a paleobiologist who specializes in amber. He popped the specimen in the mail to see what his expert friend would make of it.
George Poinar Jr., 79, a professor at Oregon State University, is considered the world’s foremost expert on insect specimens preserved in amber. Poinar discovered that the preservative qualities of amber are so great that not only is the form of a creature suspended in amber intact, but so are the intact cell organelles, such as nuclei, lipids, mitochondria, and even red blood cells. In fact, Poinar’s research on the topic has been so illuminative that his work caught the attention of science fiction author Michael Crichton, who needed a scientifically plausible route by which his scientist characters could obtain
dinosaur DNA. Crichton read a paper Poinar wrote on insects preserved in amber, and Poinar’s research became the basis for Crichton’s novel, “Jurassic Park.” The author visited Poinar’s lab in order to more realistically ground his fiction in science — even so, Poinar is skeptical that dinosaurs could ever be brought back.
“I think it’s possible to maybe introduce some ancient DNA into animal genomes. I don’t think it’s possible to bring a dinosaur back from what we have; I’ll leave that to the books and the movies,” he said.
Instead, Poinar focuses on insects. He examined the fossilized tick, which dates to the Miocene era, filing down the amber down so that the tick was just five-hundredths of a millimeter from the surface, and put it under his microscope. Then he discovered another parasite even smaller than the tick in the monkey’s blood: An early version of Babesia microti, a protozoan parasite that infects primates when its host sucks their blood. In humans, it causes a malaria-like disease called babesiosis.
Poinar’s research has helped advance our understanding of diseases like malaria and tick-borne illnesses. He and other scientists have also extracted DNA from ancient insects embedded in amber. As for reanimating ancient creatures, however, that remains unlikely. The tick’s cache of monkey blood is too tiny a specimen to work with, as mammalian red blood cells don’t contain DNA, although the less common white ones do. “It’s kind of a long shot,” he said. “But I would have loved to [sequence it] if I had enough material.”