An elephant mosquito from Poinar’s collection. Photo by George Poinar, Jr.
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If you’ve watched the original Jurassic Park movie, you’ll remember this scene of a cartoon character—“Mr. DNA”—explaining how the film’s scientists were able to extract dinosaur blood from an ancient mosquito, isolate dinosaur DNA, and in turn, create new, living dinos.
Michael Crichton, author of the book that inspired the movie, got the idea from the work of paleobiologist George Poinar, Jr. In 1982, when he was a professor of invertebrate pathology (within the Department of Entomology) at UC Berkeley, Poinar and his electron-microscopist wife published a study describing their discovery that amber could preserve intracellular structures, such as nuclei and mitochondria, in an organism trapped inside (in this case, a type of fly).
That work led to a lifelong obsession with amber, in which Poinar would find, among other specimens, the oldest known bee, the first known bat fly fossil, and the most complete flower from the Cretaceous Period. And just this past February, he co-authored a paper in Nature Plants describing a new species of neotropical flower found in amber from the mid-Tertiary Period.
Science Friday recently spoke with Poinar, 79, now a courtesy professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University, about what led him to investigate specimens trapped in amber, his thoughts on de-extinction, and his inspirations.