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Myths and Truths about Amber

Amber has a unique charm and air of mystery surrounding it. Amber can contain mosquitos and microbes have been extracted, but not from dinosaur blood enclosed in the stomach of the mosquito. Amber was recently popularized by the book and movie, Jurassic Park, in which the DNA extracted from dinosaur blood within the mosquito, was used to reproduce dinosaurs. Technology has allowed for the extraction of DNA from animals and insects trapped in amber.

In May of 1995 microbiologist Raul Cano announced he had revived bacterial spores from a stingless bee entombed in amber 25 to 40 million years ago. The amber provided an airtight shell that protected both the bee and bacteria. The microbe is genetically similar to a modern bacteria called Bacillus sphaericus, and in times of crisis they have the ability to cease moving, eating and reproducing, to survive without air or water. Work contines at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California, USA, on isolating ancient DNA and microorganisms. Two articles work viewing are Diversity of Microorganisms Isolated from Amber (Greenblatt, C.L., Davis, A., Clement, B.G., Kitts, C.L., Cox, T., and Cano, R.J. (1999). Diversity of microorganisms isolated from amber. Microbial Ecology, 38(1), p. 58-68.) and Staphylococcus succinus sp. nov., isolated from Dominican amber (Lamber, L.H., Cox, T., Mitchell, K., Rossello-Mora, R.A., DelCueto, C., Dodge, D.E., Orkand, P., and Cano, R.J. (1998). Staphylococcus succinus sp. nov., isolated from Dominican amber. International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, 48(Pt2), p. 511-518). View the Cano lab, where they "crack amber pieces to recover really old DNA."

Some scientists are skeptical and ask whether the microbes are ancient or just modern organisms growing on the laboratory equipment. To establish authenticity in science, the ability to replicate the procedure is important. Raul Cano and colleague Monica Borucki were aware of the possible critics and they isolated and grew spores in a highly sterile environment. If Cano's claims can be substantiated he will be the first to resurrect life from the past. Does this research have any practical value? Yes! Germ-fighting antibiotics could be screened from the microbes and used to replace antibiotics that are becoming ineffective as more disease-causing microbes grow resistent to penicillin. Studying ancient revived bacteria can also contribute to understanding evolution.

Amber Used as Medicine

Honey was mixed with powdered amber and prescribed for asthma, gout, and the black plague. Amber pendants were worn to preserve chastity, and used as rosary beads or talismans against evil and dark forces. Amber was burned along with non-fossil tree resins, such as frankincense, myrrh, and copal to dispel evil spirits and fumigate worldly nuisances such as mosquitos. Sailors burned amber on ships to drive away sea serpents and the perils of the deep. Today amber is still used as a medicine! This was purchased recently in Poland. For more information visit Amber in Medicine.

Amber in Literature

Amber was listed among other precious decorations by Homer in the Odyssey. It was mentioned by Aristotle, Plato, Theophrastus, Tacitus, and Strabo. Pliny the Elder wrote a natural history treatise and explained amber origins. Amber's unique properties are presented in early mineralogic dissertations: Al Biruni (972-1068), Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), and Georgius Agricola (1492-1555). N. Sendelius' work, "Historia succinorum corpora aliena involventium" (1742) contains excellent descriptions and illustrations of animal inclusions in the royal collection in Dresden, owned by Augustus II the Strong. For some Greek, Lithuanian, and Norse myths with an amber connection, read some of Bruce Knuth's tales.

For more myths and truths, visit Andzia's Amber, More tales and stories can be found at a Dragonfly site

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