21 September 2019
Dr Michael Pittman has talked many times about facts and myths surrounding dinosaurs. Photo: HKEJ
Dr Michael Pittman has talked many times about facts and myths surrounding dinosaurs. Photo: HKEJ

Genetic engineering: Facts and fiction

With Jurassic World hitting the screens and turning out to be a summer blockbuster, there is fresh interest and curiosity among the public about the long-extinct dinosaur species.

Dr Michael Pittman, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that the movie is an exciting and sophisticated sci-fi adventure.

However, as a dinosaur expert, Pittman can’t help highlighting the wrong facts illustrated in the film.

For instance, the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the 2015 film appears no different from its fellow creature in the first Jurassic Park movie in 1993.

“For the last 22 years paleontologists have recovered more evidence about T-Rex. The animals’ backs and elbows are believed to have had feathers. However, the feathers were not the same as those on today’s birds. They would only be ‘stalk’ or ‘quill-like’.”

Meanwhile, a hybrid dinosaur is purely the stuff of fantasy.

Pittman says it is hardly possible to replicate dinosaurs even with the current state-of-the-art science technology, given that available DNA samples are incomplete or far too dated.

“French scientists have been able to extract the DNA from the big toes of the Neanderthals, who were believed to be the early human beings. Theoretically speaking, the reproduction of Neanderthal babies is possible and so does the replication of Mammoths.”

“But it is still impossible to reproduce the Neanderthals or mammoths 100 percent given that they were several hundred thousand years away from the present. As for dinosaurs, they date back to 65 million years. Even if there were traces of DNA, they would be found fossilized or contaminated by bacteria,” said Pittman.

Since intact DNA samples are not possible, how about compensating by introducing some DNA materials from frogs, as suggested in the film?

Pittman shook his head, saying it is just too far-fetched to link up DNA of frogs and the dinosaurs.

“Introducing foreign DNA is possible. For example, a friend of mine from Harvard is doing research on adding some genes from birds into an embryo of a crocodile, making a crocodile with a bird head.”

“But I still believe it is hardly possible to replicate the entire dinosaur,” said Pittman.

The film sends a message that humans will get themselves destroyed if they try to alter the nature at their own will.

As a scientist, Pittman assures that genetic engineering is highly regulated by law, contrary to what movies might make us believe.

“Replication of the human being is banned and so Neanderthal babies are not possible. My friend’s bird-head crocodile was destroyed before its birth.”

However, Pittman said that genetic engineering is doing more good than harm to our society. For instance, it is unlikely that the world can be fed with so much meat without new technologies, he said.

Born in London to a Scottish father and a Hong Kong mother, Pittman was brought up in Hong Kong. Even now he spends a lot of time here, having set up a base in the city due to his frequent travels to the Gobi Desert for research.

He believes there were dinosaurs in ancient Hong Kong. However, active volcanoes during the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods would have probably melted all the dinosaur remains, he says.

He points out that scientists have not made any discoveries in Hong Kong despite looking for dinosaur fossils at all possible sites here for over 50 to 60 years.

But if there is a breakthrough and a new dinosaur species were recovered in Hong Kong, Pittman suggests that it should be named after the Hong Kong Chinese martial arts star Bruce Lee Siu-lung.

The reason: ‘Siu-lung’ can mean ‘small dinosaur’ in Chinese. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 2.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Pittman has been conducting dinosaur research for many years along with some colleagues. Photo: HKEJ

Pittman travels to the Gobi Desert every summer. An intact dinosaur skull (inset) was discovered by Pittman and his team. Photos: HKEJ

Pittman has been a nature lover since his childhood. He was fascinated by the first Jurassic Park movie in 1993. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal