A renowned paleontologist and his team of pioneering geneticists are looking to genetically re-create a dinosaur, using DNA from a chicken. And no, we’re not lifting this story from a Steven Spielberg movie.
Paleontologist Jack Horner, of whom not only worked on the film "Jurassic Park" as a technical advisor, but also served as inspiration for one of the main characters, proposed his ‘chickenosaurus’ concept in his 2009 book, “How to Build a Dinosaur”. The idea is to use existing DNA found in modern chickens to regress features of the animal, so as to resemble a small dinosaur-like creature. Most birds still hold latent genes for the features previously exhibited by their reptilian ancestors.
Matthew Harris, of the Harvard Medical School Department of Genetics, has already made chicken embryos that express lizard-like teeth. “After 70 million years, the organism still maintains the latent mechanisms of making the beginning stages of these teeth. If that is the case, what other sort of latent potential still exists in other animals or ourselves? How does that equate to ideas about repair or medicine?”
The main challenge is apparently to discover how to get a bird to re-grow a lizard-like tail, a feature that birds no longer have. Horner says they may have to use transgenics to re-introduce the code for that into the test animals. “Using genetic markers, we’ve identified what genes turn on to make certain parts and what is reabsorbing that particular part,” Horner says. “We are looking for what kinds of genes actually take out whole segments of tail. Our next step really is now to get ourselves a colony of [geckos] and then see if we can take some of these pathways and actually see if we can knock out the tail.”
However, Harris brings up an important issue that was pointed out in ‘Jurassic Park’: “Just because you can do an experiment doesn’t mean that you should do an experiment. What is the scientific question that is being asked? Jack is asking a question: ‘Can you remake something that was once lost?’ It is the wrong question to ask. What are you going to learn if you could do it? Technically, you are going to have a messed-up chicken. It’s not a dinosaur. It’s never going to be a dinosaur. It’s just going to be a really awful monstrosity. What we should ask is: Knowing the history of birds, what are the interesting parts of their biology that can tell us something about the dinosaurs?”