September 11, 1994
Americans learned about amber fossils and DNA during the summer of 1993, when the movie Jurassic Park captivated the nation. The dinosaurs of that fictitious theme park were cloned from the blood meals of mosquitoes trapped in tree sap over 65 million years ago – the sap now turned to amber. Though the premise of Jurassic Park is fictional, the startling fact that the DNA of ancient organisms can be preserved for millions of years in amber is very much a reality. The Poinars led the team of scientists who made this discovery.
George Poinar began collecting amber specimens over thirty years ago, but it was only recently, in 1992, that he, Roberta, and the rest of his research team made headlines with the news that they had obtained “live” DNA strands from an insect about 40 million years old. Since that time, they have remained extraordinarily active, and in the summer of 1993, their team was able to announce the successful extraction of preserved DNA strands over 125 million years old. Thus, there is now DNA available for study dating from the early dinosaur period.
This incredible research provides us with an unprecedented window to the past. An organism’s DNA is its living blueprint. By studying the blueprints from ancient organisms, we are in a position to learn a tremendous amount about ourselves and the world in which we currently live.
The Quest for Life in Amber is the story of this thirty-year scientific odysssy. Part of the book is about the science itself and its importance, and part is about the world of amber and amber collectors – an exotic world the Poinars journeyed into to conduct the research. In passages that read more like an Indiana Jones screenplay than a scientific narrative, the Poinars describe how what began as a hobby grew into a semi-obsession, one which ultimately led to their breakthrough scientific discovery. Along the way they encountered all manner of unusual characters, from threatening black marketeers and gun-toting guerillas, to extraordinarily talented scientists. And, of course, always in the background were the luminously beautiful specimens captured in the still life of amber.
George and Roberta Poinar are both affiliated with the Division of Entomology at the University of California, Berkeley. George Poinar has led the international research effort to extract preserved DNA from ancient, amber-encased insects and plants. As an electron microscopist, Roberta Poinar has been central to the research effort, and responsible for many of the laboratory techniques that they have used. Their work has been described in leading publications throughout the world, from The New York Times, to Newsweek, to The Wall Street Journal. They’ve also been featured on numerous television programs, from The Today Show to Nova and other documentaries appearing on public television. They reside in Berkeley, California.