Scientists are planning to hatch dinosaurs from chicken eggs by turning back the evolutionary clock to when birds were dinosaurs. They believe advances in DNA technology could make such a feat possible in 60 to 100 years.

Modern birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, and some say that structurally birds are dinosaurs. Major differences between species can already be created or removed with surprising ease. Already one team at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has succeeded in getting the beaks of chicken embryos to grow budding teeth. This is a feature bird ancestors lost 60 million years ago, soon after the death of the dinosaurs. Researchers have partially restored legs to snakes and eyes to eyeless cave fish.

?The technology will be there,? says David Stern of Princeton University, in an article in the July 21st New Scientist. ?Things are happening so rapidly now.?

Just 2 years ago, Stern predicted it would take 2 centuries to resurrect a dinosaur. ?Now I?d guess more like 60 to 100 years,? he says.

Just as linguists can reconstruct long-lost languages by looking for common roots among modern languages, so geneticists can infer what ancestral genes must have looked like by comparing the DNA of descendants that have a common ancestor, says Steven Benner of the University of Florida in Gainesville. His team has reconstructed a gene that belonged to Cretaceous yeast, an organism which lived alongside T. rex 70 million years ago. Comparing the genomes of different birds would yield an ancestral, dinosaurian genome. If they can recreate the genome, they can pop it into a chicken egg and a dinosaur should hatch out. This would answer a lot of hotly-debated questions, such as whether or not dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded.

The idea of re-creating dinosaurs from fossilized DNA – as portrayed in the film Jurassic Park – has been dismissed since little if any of the fragile molecule could have survived after 65 million years. But altering genetic changes that have developed during evolution may be possible. ?In some cases, these ancient circuits are probably still there,? says Martin Cohn at the University of Reading in England. ?All we need to do is plug them in.?

Unplugging an evolutionary circuit could be the easiest thing to do. For instance, feathers are an evolutionary elaboration of scales, so getting rid of them or halting them at an earlier stage of development shouldn?t be very hard, says Cheng-Ming Chuong of USC in Los Angeles. It shouldn?t be too hard to create a toothy, scaly chicken.

What emerges from the egg may be a generic dinosaur. Too many details have been lost along the way to faithfully recreate a particular species. Details such as skin color and behavior, long lost in the fossil record, would have to be invented.

If we can recreate dinosaurs, why not turn the clock back and bring back Neanderthal man? ?If something is possible, then someone is going to try it,? says Stern. ?We have 50 to 100 years before this happens, and we need that much time to think about the ethical implications.?

Dino image copyright Todd Marshall. To see more of his great work, click here.

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