The Science of Jurassic World - How the Humble Chicken Could Aid the Creation of Real Life Dinosaurs

Monday, 11 May 2015 - 5:07AM
Genetic Engineering
Weird Science
Monday, 11 May 2015 - 5:07AM
The Science of Jurassic World - How the Humble Chicken Could Aid the Creation of Real Life Dinosaurs
On June 12th, Jurassic World will hit theaters, featuring for the first time in the series, a genetically modified hybrid dinosaur. In the brilliant, but admittedly fictional world of the Jurassic Park franchise, the science of cloning dinosaurs has become so advanced, recreating a dinosaur is no longer enough to excite and entertain the masses flooding into the open and fully functioning dinosaur-themed park. But, as can be the case with any science fiction franchise that manages to captivate its audience, people find themselves asking whether or not the events in from Jurassic World are actually possible in the real world.



Where are our dinosaurs? How close are we to recreating a prehistoric creature? Is it even possible to clone a dinosaur? In his 2011 TedTalk, "Building a Dinosaur from a Chicken," paleontologist Jack Horner describes the efforts of today's scientists in recreating dinosaurs. Horner and his team's discovery of the first eggs, baby dinosaurs, and nests found in the Western Hemisphere as well as their hypothesis of dinosaurs as social animals were the inspiration for Crichton's depiction of dinosaurs in his novel Jurassic Park, as well as the basis for the research of the character Dr. Alan Grant.

Horner dismisses the methods used to create dinosaurs as described by Crichton in the Jurassic Park franchise, saying "If you actually had a piece of amber, and it had an insect in it, and you drilled into it, and you got something out of that insect, and you cloned it, and you did it over and over and over again, you'd have a room full of mosquitoes." But Horner does admit that he and his team did attempt to see if cloning could actually become a reality, searching for viable DNA in dinosaur bones to use as the basis for their research. Though they managed to find heme (the biological foundation of hemoglobin), blood vessels (the first soft tissues from a dinosaur ever found), osteocytes, and evidence of proteins, they could not find the DNA they so desperately needed. According to Horner, if we want to make dinosaurs, we will not find our genetic source in the dinosaurs of the past, but the living dinosaurs that walk the earth today: birds.

Scientists are working on using the biological modification tool of atavism activation to, in the words of Horner, "fix the chicken." An atavism is an ancestral characteristic that can present itself in modern animals due to genetic malfunctions. If scientists can learn what genes are responsible for these atavisms they can find ways to purposefully modify animals. Indeed, some impressive progress has already been made, as the researchers have figured out how to stimulate the gene that causes teeth to grow in chickens as well as stop the gene that reverses the contraction of the prehistoric tail. Efforts are also being made to stop the gene that fuses the embryotic three-pronged claw into the wing. Horner states that the plan is to "take our chicken, modify it, and make a chickenosaurus." 

Though a chickenosaurus would be a great scientific feat, a dinosaur-chicken does leave something to be desired (I doubt the crowds would still be flocking to Jurassic Park if their new attraction was a genetically modified chicken). What would happen if the same biological modifications were used on a bird that more closely resembled the predators of Jurassic Park? The cassowary is often called "Australia's Velociraptor." With its ability to grow over six and a half feet tall and run at speeds over thirty miles per hour, as well as its claw on their middle toe that can grow up to five-inches long, the comparison with those 'clever girls' from Jurassic Park seems highly appropriate. Activate the latent dinosaur characteristics in the cassowary, and Dr. Grant's description of a velociraptor in the film "Jurassic Park" could be a feat achieved by a new Cassowaryosaurus. If the genes of the cassowary fail to respond, it could be possible to use transgenesis to splice in the equivalent chicken genes that have proven to be responsive.

So, although the disastrous events of Jurassic World are still a long way off from reality, it would seem that thanks to the work of people like Dr. Horner, the idea that we could end up with our very own "genetically modified hybrid." is not quite as fictional as it once might have been.  In the words of the infamous John Hammond, "What could go wrong?"

Watch Horner's fascinating TedTalk, in full, below.
Science
Science of Sci-Fi
Genetic Engineering
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