A Jurassic Park for Real?

Contributed by Tianai Sun and Weili Qu

The mysterious dinosaurs in movies or museums must have amazed you. But have you ever thought about keeping a real pet dinosaur? Good news: it could happen! One of the major misconceptions about evolution is that since evolution occurs slowly, humans cannot influence it. However, modern genetic tools enable humans to accelerate, decelerate, or redirect evolution. To aid the study of evolution, some scientists long to study living dinosaurs. Unfortunately, they went extinct 66 million years ago. To bring back dinosaurs would require abundant dinosaur DNA, which is rare, and more advanced genetic tools than are currently available. Lacking the crucial raw materials, is it possible that we can transform current animals into dinosaurs? Believe it or not, scientists may answer, “chickens!”

It is hard to imagine the transition from chicken to dinosaur, for they are drastically different in both size and appearance. However, a decade ago, Dr. Vargas from Universidad de Chile and his colleagues found that chicken embryos follow the same pattern of digit development as dinosaurs, even though they differ morphologically. This provides strong evidence that dinosaurs are authentic ancestors of chickens. As a result, chickens are an ideal model to be modified into dinosaurs.

Although chickens are closely related to dinosaurs, their major differences, including the “beak” shape and tail length, still induce difficulties in the process of transformation. How exactly could scientists solve these issues?

Chickens and birds have beaks with vestigial snouts, while alligators possess well developed snouts on their upper jaw. They, however, share similar developmental processes. Recently, by manipulating chicken embryos, Dr. Arhat Abzhanov successfully generated a modified chicken whose beak was similar to an alligator’s snout. Given that the snouts of alligators are morphologically similar to that of dinosaurs, this groundbreaking achievement brings us one step closer. Similarly, scientists are endeavoring to identify genes that control tail development in order to extend the tail of chickens, mimicking the tail of a dinosaur. If this goal is achieved, the creation of “chickenosaurus” as well as the realization of the Jurassic Park could be within reach in the future. Regardless of whether this happens, we will gain fundamental insights into how developmental patterns evolve.

More broadly, advanced scientific developments provide humans with the ability to explore the world. Genetic tools are widely used in biological research and are surprisingly effective in bringing about novel knowledge. While evolution often occurs slowly, the idea that humans cannot impact evolution due to its slow rate is incorrect, exemplified by the attempt to recreate features of extinct dinosaurs through genetic approaches. So, don’t be disappointed if scientists are unable to bring the amazing dinosaurs back to you, for even simply recreating specific phenotypes of dinosaurs in model systems enlightens our understanding of dinosaur evolution.

To see how a chicken could be transformed to have a dinosaur-like snout, claw and tail, check out the video below:

For More Information…

1.Ted Talk: Jack Horner: Building a dinosaur from a chicken http://www.ted.com/talks/jack_horner_building_a_dinosaur_from_a_chicken#t-143965

2.Horner, J. R. 2001. Dinosaurs under the big sky (p. 195). Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

3.Grossi, B., Iriarte-Díaz, J., Larach, O., Canals, M., & Vásquez, R. A. 2014. Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion. PloS ONE, 9(2), e88458.

4.Carrano, M.T., Biewener, A.A. 1999. Experimental Alteration of Limb Posture in the Chicken (Gallus gallus) and Its Bearing on the Use of Birds as Analogs for Dinosaur Locomotion. JOURNAL OF MORPHOLOGY, 240:237–249.

5.Vargas, A.O., Fallon, J.F. 2005. Birds Have Dinosaur Wings: The Molecular Evidence. JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL ZOOLOGY (MOL DEV EVOL) 304B:86–90.

6.Carrano, M. T. 1998. Locomotion in non-avian dinosaurs: integrating data from hindlimb kinematics, in vivo strains, and bone morphology. Paleobiology Vol.24, No. 4, pp. 450-469.

7.Padian, K., Horner, J. R. 2011. The evolution of ‘bizarre structures’ in dinosaurs: biomechanics, sexual selection, social selection or species recognition?. Journal of Zoology, 283: 3–17.