Jurassic Chicken: The Resurrection of Dinosaurs
When I was five years old I announced to the world that I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up and at eleven I read Jurassic Park with a childish wonder. I knew it was fiction, that dinosaurs could not be engineered back into existence but what a tantalizing fantasy it was!
Jurassic Park did a strange thing, it invigorated the public's imagination and spurned an interest in paleontology that fostered the largest boom of amateur and professional paleontologists in history. Sadly I was unable to be one of these but this didn't stop me from watching the field progress from a distance.
The discoveries in the past ten years have been astounding. Fossils of dinosaurs and large animals have been found with preserved internal organs, skin, and feathers. Even more shocking is the fact that genuine dinosaur proteins were found in several fossils that were so intact that paleontologists could determine the sex of the animal by determining if these proteins were the same as the ones produced by birds currently producing eggs. This was never thought possible in the past.
So what does this have to do with engineering a real living breathing animal? No, no one is trying to clone dinosaurs or start a dinosaur genome but there is an interesting phenomenon going on behind the doors of some laboratories where paleontology is meeting biology.
Thomas Henry Huxley was the first one to suggest that birds and certain predator dinosaurs had many similar characteristics in their bone structure and therefore theorized that birds descended from these dinosaurs. He was a famous anatomist in his day and is known now mostly for being "Darwin's bulldog," a fierce defender of the new Theory of Evolution. Until the 1990s almost all paleontologists considered his theories incorrect and obsolete. That all changed when fossils started to be found with feather impressions. These weren't flight feathers but they were still feathers much like the feathers seen today on Silky Bantam chickens.
These discoveries made scientists take a closer look at feathers and the animals that sported them. It was learned that feathers and reptilian scales are essentially made out of the same proteins. All sorts of theories surged as to why this may be.
A small handful of individuals didn't feel like spending their time theorizing about the past, they wanted to tinker with the future. Learning that these feathers were the same as scales they devised a way to alter chicken and crocodile embryos so that the crocodiles would have feathers and the chickens would have scales. That was amusing enough but a scaly chicken is not a dinosaur.
Next this same handful of scientists started looking at the beaks on chicken embryos. They were the first to notice that prior to hatching chicks have little nubs on their beaks which looked startlingly like sharp backward facing teeth suspiciously like those found on the same dinosaurs Huxley pointed out as being their ancestors.
Finally the chickens' tails were studied. It was discovered that chicken embryos have full lizard-like tails for part of their development with the extra vertebrae absorbing before the chick hatches. This was an easy gene to track down and turn off, making these chickens keep their lizard-like tails. The researchers say they still haven't figured out how to recreate dinosaur feet, claws, and arms, in chickens but they're going to stay diligent.
With all these discoveries it is now possible to hatch an animal that resembles a cross between a chicken and a velociraptor. In fact chickens were only picked because of their commonality as laboratory research animals (and the Silky Bantam's natural feathers) but in the future these techniques could be used on ostriches and other large flightless birds. These animals would be even more dinosaur-like and more dangerous to work around.
So will man ever reverse engineer an animal that's been extinct for 65 million years? It seems quite possible...
Recently I was lucky enough to stumble upon this wonderful speech by one of the paleontologists I liked to listen to as a child when my passion for paleontology was at its strongest. Its well worth a listen and ads much to what I've already stated here in my own article.
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