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The Science

Important scientific discoveries are  coming from close inspection of these fossil specimens in amber, although the Jurassic Park fantasy of fishing out DNA from amber hasn’t yet come true,.


Amber History


Amber Science

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Amber DNA?

Amber, the hardened resin of ancient conifers, has since ancient times been used as jewelry, folk medicine and in perfumes. It has been found glittering in Mycenaean and Egyptian tombs and even in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, giving amber his Greek name "Electron".


Traded in the Baltic since antiquity, amber became a sought-after trade item, with the Amber Road an important trade artery. For several thousand years the amber road led from Europe to Asia and from Africa to the Baltic Sea, disseminating Mediterranean civilization north and giving rise to Nordic Bronze Age cultures in Scandinavia.


 By the 13th century Christian Europe demanded amber for rosary beads. Returning from the Crusades, the Teutonic Knights established a monopoly over the collection of amber, brutally enforcing it by hanging anyone caught "poaching." By the 15th century, shrewd Danzig merchants sold amber for prayer beads to Muslims in the Middle East.

Amber excels at preserving fine detail and soft tissue that cannot be preserved with normal sedimentary fossilization processes. During contact, tree resin seeps into the organism’s soft tissues, and then protecting the entombed animals and plants from fungus and rot while also drying them out. Later, the resin hardens to form a shell that further protects the fossil inclusions. This can protect and preserve cellular (or even subcellular) level details.


Small insects are the most common amber fossil specimens, but occasionally amber larger traps strong, active creatures, such as dragonflies, or a few rare vertebrates such as lizards and even birds. Today amber has become affordable and also the subject of scientific scrutiny. It is one of the best archives of prehistory; preserving the more fragile, ephemeral varieties of life – insects in particular.


Many researchers such as Dr. George Poinar and others are investigating the DNA contained in some specimens. This has captured the public imagination, leading to novels and movies exploiting the delicious possibilities... and to the art in this website

The Jurassic Park fantasy of fishing out DNA from amber hasn’t yet come true, despite multiple tests in even very young amber. However, important scientific discoveries are nonetheless coming from close inspection of these fossil specimens.  Amber researchers have reported other chemical traces in their fossils such as pigments that reveal how creatures shimmered under the mid-Cretaceous sun, and structural molecules such as chitin from arthropod exoskeletons and lignin and cellulose from plants.


Researchers have reported recovering amino acids from a feather in Burmese amber, bearing a chemical signature that suggested they had still been bound into fragments of proteins before the test. The next step: to actually sequence ancient proteins, which could offer researchers another way to track evolutionary relationships and understand how organisms lived.


Researchers have started to experiment with synchrotron imaging, using intense x-rays that cause chemical elements in a sample to fluoresce at distinct wavelengths, for example. It will take decades to figure out how to truly utilize the wealth of information trapped inside rich amber inclusions.

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