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Science & Tech

Washington Post
These amber-entombed cockroaches, discovered in Lebanon, were trapped and eventually engulfed by flowing sap about 120 million years ago.

An analysis of ancient amber

Tree liquid has entombed many plants, animals

In the 1993 film “Jurassic Park,” miners discover a mosquito entombed in a red-yellow substance, supposedly carrying the DNA of long-extinct dinosaurs, waiting to be revived by modern scientists.

It’s a dramatic moment, but as recent events have shown, amber’s real-life exploits are so much more interesting.

This month, a team of researchers in Oregon and Germany released a series of remarkable photographs of a 100 million-year-old flower frozen in the act of sexual reproduction in a piece of amber.

This just after scientists released images of an ancient cockroach trapped in amber. In 2012, amber gave us a pair of 100 million-year-old spiders locked in combat.

How did these living things become encased in their golden tombs? If you don’t know, don’t be embarrassed. People have long misunderstood the magic of amber.

In the ambitiously titled 1803 book “The Wonders of Nature and Art: or, A Concise Account of Whatever Is Most Curious and Remarkable in the World,” the author notes that the issue of how animals become locked in amber “is a question much agitated amongst the curious enquirers into the works of nature.”

He goes on to dismiss speculation that amber is “of vegetable origin,” since animals get stuck only to the outside of such juice flows, not entombed within them.

In fact, that is exactly what happens. Amber begins as resin, a reddish, viscous liquid that flows out of a diseased or damaged tree. Several different types of trees are capable of producing the resin that becomes amber, but it’s usually one particular tree in each area where fossilized amber is.

When an animal comes along it can get stuck in the resin flow. At first, it may be only a part of the animal caught in the resin, but several additional doses of resin can come flowing down, eventually submerging the trapped creature.

After the animal is caught, the resin begins to harden. If the pressure and temperature conditions are right, the resin transforms into the semi-fossilized substance copal.

The speed of this process varies tremendously depending on the conditions.

Many scientists have even reported extracting DNA from an ancient animal encased in amber, which brings us back to the “Jurassic Park” scenario.

In the early 1990s, several researchers announced remarkable DNA recoveries from a variety of creatures preserved in amber, including bees and beetles, some of which were more than 100 million years old. The claims upended the conventional wisdom that DNA could not survive more than about 1 million years.

It now appears that the conventional wisdom was correct.

David Penney, a researcher at the University of Manchester, published a study in September showing that most of the DNA “finds” of the 1990s were, in fact, contaminants rather than true ancient DNA.

“Some of those researchers have held up their hands and said it was probably contaminant DNA, but some still hold to their claims,” he says.