Yes, this is for real.
No, there isn’t dinosaur DNA trapped in amber, waiting to be replicated and cloned.
But that’s not the only way to make a dino, said Jack Horner, the paleontologist who worked on “Jurassic World” (and the rest of the “Jurassic Park” films), and he wants to make it happen.
How did we get to this point, where Horner — one of the main inspirations for Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” character Alan Grant — thinks we can make a live dinosaur within five to 10 years?
“It all started with ‘Jurassic Park,'” Horner told Business Insider in an interview.
In 1993, the same year the first movie came out, he and then-graduate student Mary Schweitzer, who has continued to make some amazing discoveries in the field of paleontology, tried to extract DNA from dinosaur bones.
They failed. DNA basically starts coming apart as soon as a cell dies, says Horner, and no one has ever found intact dinosaur DNA — he doesn’t think it’s possible. “If you did the thing they did in ‘Jurassic Park,'” says Horner (referring to the story’s solution of filling in dino DNA gaps with frog DNA), “you’d basically have a frog.”
About 20 years of genetics research later, however, Horner has another plan — and it relies on the fact that we have a more effective way to get “dinosaur” DNA.
Going back in time
We have creatures on the planet that are the direct descendants of dinosaurs: birds. And if you ask a paleontologist, birds are dinosaurs, specifically avian dinosaurs.
They might not look like dinosaurs, but birds have feathers, just like dinosaurs, including the ferocious velociraptor. Over time, their descendants’ snouts turned into beaks, they stopped growing tails, and wings further evolved into modern bird wings.
But birds didn’t necessarily lose the genes that code for tails or arms or snouts — instead, those same traits most likely exist in their genetic code, inactive, while the newer genes for wings, tail feathers, and beaks are expressed.
Horner thinks that we can suppress these new genes and express the atavistic, throwback dinosaurian genes instead. And his plan is to do this first with a well-researched bird that we’re all familiar with, a chicken, giving us… a “chickenosaurus,” as he described in a TED talk, or a “dino-chicken.”
Picture it: a small, feathered creature, with a tail that helps it balance, small arms with claws, and a toothy snout, instead of a beak.
Remember, real velociraptors were just the size of a large turkey.
Horner has talked about pet dinosaurs for a while. Publishers of his book, “How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever” came out in 2009, originally planned to release it around the same time as “Jurassic Park 4.”
Basically, Horner says, he’s trying to discover the genetic pathways that turned birds into the modern creatures we know, so we can turn back the clock on a chicken’s evolutionary history.
And as wild as this may sound, Horner’s not the only one doing this type of work. A pair of Harvard and Yale scientists recently announced they’d found a way to turn chicken beaks back into dinosaur snouts. Sceptics think building a dino snout won’t be so easy, and will involve as-yet undiscovered genetics. But the researchers counter that their work shows just how fast the science in this field is developing.
Horner says we can look at the beak study as a “proof of concept” that this reverse engineering process is feasible.
That Harvard-Yale team is working on the beak. In 2014, another group reported in PLOS Biology they’d figured out how dinosaur arms fused into wings. Horner is working on the tail. And he thinks that with the right funding, we can reverse-engineer and grow a dinosaur in five to ten years.
Creating something new
If researchers reverse-engineer a bird, they’d have some sort of dinosaur, though it would still be a new species — the process by which modern birds evolved happened over tens of millions of years, and the few changes we’re talking about here probably wouldn’t represent an exact creature that existed 65 million years ago.
And dinosaurs that weren’t of the avian variety still wouldn’t be represented. We have no modern descendant of a stegosaurus or a brontosaurus (newly restored to real dino status).
But the rapidly changing world of genetics could open up the possibility for creating animals just like, say, a triceratops.
Horner says that if we were interested, we could genetically engineer creatures like these, or like anything else we can figure out a genetic code for, even if it never existed in nature. Once we figure out the genes that create a trait, those genes could potentially be incorporated into an animal. We’ve already done this. Researchers used the genes from jellyfish to make rabbits that glow in the dark, and other researchers made mice with transparent skin. Once we know the code for a trait, we could use that to make a creature.
Horner uses a unicorn as an example — we’d just need to add genes for a horn. “We could probably get to a unicorn before we get to a dino-chicken,” he says.
So why do it?
Though some of this might sound like it’s totally out there, there are practical applications. If Horner’s team figures out how to make a tail grow, that might unlock the ability to better understand the growth of vertebrae and neural tissue, with fascinating medical implications.
He also thinks “if we can make a dino-chicken, it’s pretty cool.” It might help get kids interested in genetics at a young age — what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?
Plus, Horner points out that we’ve been genetically modifying the genes of animals for thousands of years. We’ve just called it “breeding.”
“People made chihuahuas out of wolves, for God’s sake,” he says.
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