How Long Does DNA Last?

According to the movie Jurassic Park, DNA can last millions, if not hundreds of millions of years if preserved in amber. But how true is this?

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Is there any point in looking at DNA from this far back? And what is DNA anyways? We’ve answered all of these questions and many more, so read on so you can find out everything you need to know about DNA. 

How Long Does DNA Last?

What Is DNA? 

DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid and is the molecule that contains the genetic code of nearly all organisms. This includes animals, plants, bacteria, and much more. DNA appears in every cell in an organism and is what makes that organism function. 

In people, DNA is inherited by children from their parents. The DNA in a person is a combination of the DNA from each of their parents, which is why children share traits with them, such as skin, hair, and eye color. 

People did not know what DNA was until 1869. Swiss chemist Johann Fredrich Miescher managed to isolate and extract DNA molecules when conducting other experiments on white blood cells.

Before this people were aware that traits could be passed down from parent to child, but they did not know that DNA was the cause of this. 

Since then much research has been conducted on DNA, and it is now commonly used for solving cold criminal cases, or for finding out more about a person’s ancestry and where their family is originally from.

This is most commonly done on ancestry websites like 23andme, which extracts your DNA from a saliva sample and is able to determine genetic information about you, find potential long-lost relatives, and determine the origins of your family. 

How Long Does DNA Last? 

This depends on how the DNA has been stored and extracted, with many studies claiming different time frames before the DNA breaks down. 

One study in New Zealand examined the DNA taken from the leg bones of extinct moa birds and found that the half-life of DNA is 521 years. So every 1,000 years, 75% of the genetic information is lost.

After 6.8 million years, every single base pair is gone, meaning there is no DNA left to analyze. That’s a bit shorter than the timeframe given in Jurassic Park. 

But as we said, the timeframe before DNA disintegrates depends on many factors. Most importantly, it depends on whether the DNA is exposed to heat, water, sunlight, and oxygen.

If an organism is left out and exposed to weather conditions, then its DNA will only be useful for testing for a few weeks.

But if it’s buried a few feet below the ground, the DNA will last about 1,000 to 10,000 years. Bodies or other organisms buried in colder conditions are able to preserve their DNA for much longer as this stops the decaying process.

If an organism is frozen in Antarctic ice for example, then the DNA could survive for a few hundred thousand years. Sill no matter what condition the organism is in, it’s very unlikely that the DNA will last more than a million years in its complete form. 

Can DNA Survive In Amber? 

Despite what the movie may say, amber doesn’t do a good job at keeping DNA fresh, and even if some DNA was found there wouldn’t be enough to make loads of dinosaurs.

While fossilized tree sap can preserve insect skeletons for tens of millions of years, the DNA inside the insect will break down very quickly.

This is because when an organism dies, the enzymes that are responsible for decay begin breaking down DNA almost immediately. So in the time it would take for the amber to fossilize, the DNA would’ve already nearly or completely disappeared. 

DNA molecule on a dark blue background

Can We Use DNA To Clone Animals? 

Yes, we can, and it’s already been done. Dolly the sheep is one of the most famous animals in the world, as she was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell.

This experiment was done in an attempt to develop a better method for producing genetically modified livestock. Though the experiment was successful there have been very few instances of cloning farm animals since then. 

There has been a rise in dog cloning, though is reserved for the super-rich. If a person has a spare $50,000+ and really loves their dog, they may choose to have their pet cloned after it passes away.

The cloned twin will share many of the key attributes of the original dog, including intelligence, temperament, and appearance. The genetic identity of cloned dogs is identical to the original dogs.

Can We Clone Mammoths? 

While people would love to clone dinosaurs, it’s generally accepted that there is little to no DNA left of these animals, which makes cloning impossible. So what about woolly mammoths?

While there is a Wooly Mammoth Revival Project that has been set up to try and make this happen, it seems very unlikely that what they make will be a true mammoth.

This is because cloning requires living cells, which are very hard to find in fossilized remains and it matt be too late to find them anyways. 

Instead of making a real mammoth, the project instead is trying to cut out and remove precise sequences of elephant DNA and replace them with the DNA sequences that make up specific genes in the woolly mammoth’s genome, which would give us the closest thing we could get to a mammoth. 


Though science is doing its best to use DNA to bring back animals we’ve lost, for now, the best DNA can do for us is help in solving cold cases, and providing people with the chance to find out more about their ancestry. 

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