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The Science Behind Jurassic Park – a Biologist’s Film Review

In one of the many iconic scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Dr Alan Grant, stranded in a dinosaur enclosure discovers empty dinosaur eggshells. This is a surprise to everyone on the island as the scientists there had ensured them that all dinosaurs cloned were female, meaning that there was no males to reproduce. This was key to keeping the dinosaur population under control.

Ian Malcom, a sceptic, warned that anything is possible because “life finds a way”.

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And he was right.

The Jurassic Park novel of 1990 was the inspiration for the film, written by a guy called Michael Crichton. Crichton wasn’t the most conventional author, having spent many years at medical school, which came after spending the first half of his life teaching Biology at the University of Cambridge. This gave him a good understanding of genetics (at least for the 1990s) which he could go on to use to create a ‘realistic’ science backbone for the novel’s storyline.

Whilst the visitors of the park are ensured all dinosaurs cloned are female, they are also told that to fill the missing gaps in the dinosaur genomes, the geneticists added frog, bird or lizard DNA. This adds an element of realism to the story, sequencing entire genomes of extinct animals using the technology of 1990 would have been a ridiculous suggestion, even for a film that resurrects dinosaurs.

The addition of the extra DNA supports a theory as to how females reproduced without a male. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction that has been recorded in certain species, including certain types of frog, birds and lizards. In species capable of parthenogenesis, unfertilised eggs can, under the right conditions, still give rise to live young. Often, this will only happen when there isn’t a male around to sexually reproduce with, meaning the female dinosaurs were kept in the right conditions for this to happen.

One suggested explanation for why parthenogenesis exists is that it is a mechanism against extinction. This is as stranded females wouldn’t be able to reproduce unless they somehow find a male. Conveniently, parthenogenesis usually results in a male child, with which the mother can sexually reproduce with.

You also can’t rule out that dinosaurs already had the capability to carry out parthenogenesis. There is no current scientific evidence supporting this theory, although little is known about dinosaurs’ pasts.

What has surprised me is the level of unexplained scientific detail that runs through both the film and the novel. Great sections of the plot are held together by the key concepts of genetics, the only reason people know this is by filling in the gaps with their own knowledge. I think it is quite likely that Crichton intended parthenogenesis to be the answer to this riddle, but the fact nobody is certain is why Michael Crichton was a great novelist and screenwriter.

Early Pregnancy Tests – Xenopus laevis

Pregnancy tests haven’t always been as readily available & reliable as they are today. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, scientists discovered a new improved method, involving the African Clawed Frog.

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Xenopus laevis is a common species of frog found throughout much of Sub-Saharan Africa. These early pregnancy tests involved injecting the female frogs with the urine of  a suspected pregnant women. When the scientists returned to the frog in the morning they looked out for frog eggs in the water. If the frog had ovulated the woman is pregnant. If this didn’t happen the result was negative.

Why does this work? The answer is that pregnant women produce key hormones in much higher concentrations. The human hormone gonadotropin can also cause a female frog to ovulate.

Although frogs aren’t used in pregnancy tests today, we still use the lessons learned from this practice. Xenopus laevis are commonly used in labs around the world as a model organism in developmental biology. This requires embryos all year round. Scientists today still inject frogs with gonadotropin, just it’s artificially sourced, meaning you don’t need to collect urine samples anymore! This allows for frogs to be bred in the lab throughout the year,  not just in the mating season

 

Sliding Filament Theory

The Sliding Filament Theory is used to describe the mechanism of muscle contraction.

Inside each muscle cells are two key filaments; the thick and thin filaments. The thick filament contains a protein called Myosin, whilst the thin filament is made from a protein called Actin.

Muscle cells can be broken down into sections called Sarcomeres. In one Sarcomere there will be overlapping Myosin and Actin filaments.

The Myosin filament has structures called Myosin heads, which point outwards from the filament like hair on a hairy man’s arm. A molecule called ATP can attach to Myosin heads and this causes them to change their position. When ATP is attached , the Myosin heads are in the right place to attach to Actin.

Once Myosin has attached to Actin the ATP is released. This means that the Myosin head wants to move back to it’s original position. However, because both filaments are attached to each other, the Myosin head ‘pulls’ the Actin filament along with it. The Myosin head can now detach, meaning that the process can occur again.

This process repeated many times over many sarcomeres causes the contraction of a whole muscle. This is as the shortening of all the sarcomeres means that the length of the whole muscle has got shorter too.

Muscle contraction does not occur when it isn’t wanted. This happens as a third protein called Tropomyosin normally blocks the binding site for Myosin on the Actin filament. The only way this can be exposed is if Calcium ions are present in the muscle. When they are, these attach to Tropomyosin, changing it’s shape, and therefore allowing myosin to bind.

Calcium ions are present only when an action potential has occurred. (An action potential is just another way of saying a nerve impulse)

In summary:

  • Muscles contain two key filaments, called Actin and Myosin
  • Each muscle cell can be split up into smaller units called Sarcomeres
  • One Sarcomere is the distance between two Z-discs, which are where the Mysosin filaments are attached
  • Sacrcomere shortening is the basis of muscle contraction
  • Sarcomeres shorten by Myosin heads ‘pulling’ the Actin filaments towards the centre of the Sarcomere
  • In order for this to happen, the Myosin requires ATP
  • Unwanted muscle contraction is prevented as a protein called Tropomyosin blocks the site at which Myosin heads bind to Actin
  • Calcium ions attach to Tropomyosin when muscle contraction is required, which leads to a change in shape. This change in shape allows for the Myosin to attach to the Actin, pulling it along.