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‘Step Right Up and See the Science’

The movie depends on credibility, not just the special effects. The credibility of the premise--that dinosaurs could come back to life through cloning of the DNA found in prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in amber--is what allowed the movie to be made.

--Director Steven Spielberg, discussing his new dinosaur movie, ‘Jurassic Park,’ in Newsweek.

The scientist had gone hoarse. Raul Cano croaked that he had caught a cold, but people who greeted the 47-year-old biologist in a theater lobby last Thursday advanced another theory: “Dr. Cano,” he was told more than once, “it must be all that talking.”

In the past few days, Cano had been interviewed more times than he could count. Cano heads a research team that last year retrieved DNA from a boll weevil preserved 120 million years in amber. The advance, reported last week in Nature magazine, marked the first time DNA had been salvaged from the dinosaur era, and it raised a question of whether someday--as they do in Spielberg’s new blockbuster movie--scientists might clone dinosaur DNA and recreate the long-gone creatures. From Newsweek to “Nightline” to a newspaper in Lebanon, everyone wanted a piece of the professor.

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“And what they all really want me to say,” Cano said, “is that this is possible, that we can clone dinosaurs.”

Unfortunately, he explained, this cannot be done now, will not be done ever and, even if it could be done, probably should not be done--for a whole host of moral, ethical and practical reasons. But why spoil a good story?

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The theater lobby was packed. The Fremont was celebrating a “grand reopening” with the “Jurassic Park” premiere. As part of the festivities, a few ancient insects entombed in amber were on display in a corner of the lobby. For $2, moviegoers could purchase a chance to win one of the amber pieces. The raffle was being run by Hendrik Poinar, a 24-year-old graduate student who works with Cano on DNA research at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

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“Step right up,” barked the stocky, fresh-faced young man in a polka-dot tie. “Step right up and see the real science. We got it. Right here.”

The official explanation was that raffle proceeds would support Poly’s ancient DNA research. “Labs at major universities get big huge grants,” Poinar said cheerfully. “We got a raffle.” There was also, he explained, a more pragmatic motive: “I decided I would like to eat this summer.” He said the amber pieces belonged to his “old man,” a UC Berkeley scientist who was part of the boll weevil project: “If dad can’t put me through college, I’m going to sell his amber.”

Cano kept his distance from the raffle. “Too much pride,” he said. He sat on a bench in the lobby and talked about his week. At first, it had been fun--a trip to San Francisco for a special preview, congratulatory calls from other scientists, even the interviews. He took satisfaction in bringing scientific acclaim to Cal Poly, an institution better known to outsiders for classes in horseshoe technique than cellular research. And he talked excitedly of creating a “hotbed” of DNA research--or at least being able to afford an air conditioner for his small lab.

But the “hype,” as he called it, had worn thin. “I can’t get any work done,” he complained. He also seemed unsettled by sniping from some scientific quarters, questions about ethics and priorities. There’s a line between seizing the moment and forfeiting professional dignity, and Cano could only hope he had not crossed it.

More than anything, he had come to realize that his relationship with the Hollywood promotional juggernaut was not symbiotic. Spielberg was going to make many, many millions off the movie, helped in part--as even he admits--by a suggestion of scientific plausibility created by the work of Cano and a few others. All Cano could count on, meanwhile, was a case of laryngitis.

“I got the fame,” he told a well-wisher in the lobby, “but not the fortune.”

In private, he put it more bluntly: “I got shortchanged, and I also got burned. Why? Because I am naive.”

Well, professor, that’s show business.

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Epilogue: When the night was over, Poinar had raised $500 with his raffle. “Yippie,” he shouted, “I can eat tonight.” The theater had played to a packed house, part of the $50 million the movie would generate in its debut weekend. As for Cano, he did not head home empty-handed. Someone had given him a “Jurassic Park” souvenir cap, and as he walked alone away from the theater he raised the hat toward his head, as if to try it on. He apparently thought better of it, however--dignity, dignity--and, hat in hand, turned the corner and was gone.


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