May 19, 1995 in Nation/World

Lab Revives Bacteria After 25 Million Years

San Francisco Chronicle

Ancient bacteria, trapped in amber and dormant for 25 million years or more, have been revived in a California laboratory, scientists reported Thursday.

In a real-life echo of “Jurassic Park,” researchers claim to have proved for the first time that prehistoric creatures, under just the right conditions, can be coaxed back to life as if awakened from a long night’s slumber.

The one-celled bacteria and spores involved in the new research offer little of the big-screen star power demonstrated by the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” whose resurrection through DNA splicing remains a matter of science fiction.

Nevertheless, scientists said the possibility that even a lowly germ - in this case, a beneficial bacteria found in the abdomen of an extinct stingless bee, taken from amber 25 million to 40 million years old - could be revived after so long is stunning evidence of the tenacity of life.

“Microorganisms are consummate survivors,” said Raul Cano, chairman of the microbiology program at California Polytechnic State University and principal author of the new report, being published today in the prestigious journal Science.

A privately held San Carlos, Calif., company, Ambergene Corp., financed the research and has filed for patents on the technology, even though no commercial value has been established yet. The company says it has a collection of more than 1,500 ancient organisms. Some date back more than 100 million years.

Cano and his co-author, Monica Burucki, a former graduate student, may not be the first to reawaken an ancient life form. But until now, no one could be sure.

Other researchers could never tell whether the organisms they were culturing indeed were from the time of the dinosaurs or were merely surface contaminants that somehow got into the specimen.

In fact, Cano said he first suspected that he had living ancient organisms under his microscope back in 1991. “It took us until now to have the guts to publish the paper,” he said.

Phillipp Gerhardt, professor emeritus of microbiology at Michigan State University, reviewed the findings and endorsed the conclusions. “This is an exciting discovery, opening a range of opportunities for studying microbial evolution,” he said.

There is still no reason to think that more advanced creatures - be it a simple sea sponge or a seven-ton Tyrannosaurus rex - can be resurrected in like manner.

In the Steven Spielberg movie and Michael Crichton’s book by the same name, bits of dinosaur DNA were taken from an amber-preserved mosquito, then combined with frog DNA to make an entirely new dinosaur. It may have worked as a fictional device, but scientists say that would not fly in the real world.

Cano used a simpler approach, bringing the creature itself - albeit a small one - back to an active state. DNA techniques helped to identify the organism.

Scientists said that the microbial life that has been revived poses no particular hazard for the modern era. Lab facilities are said to be tightly sealed anyway, both to reduce the chance of contaminants getting inside and to prevent anything from escaping into the environment.

At Ambergene, the fear factor clearly appears secondary to marketing cachet.

The company even went so far as to bottle some beer, dubbed “Jurassic Amber Ale,” using an ancient yeast named for a time when dinosaurs ruled. Licensing discussions are under way with a brewery, Ambergene chief executive Robin Steele said, although even she concedes there is no real advantage to using the old yeast.

“It’s a marketing thing, really,” she said.

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