American paleontologist, Dr. Jack Horner, 72, was the inspiration for the character of Dr. Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park movie. Director Steven Spielberg asked him to be a consultant and he excitedly agreed. Five movies later, the premise of the movies is closer to becoming a reality. Living breathing dinosaurs could be running around in a lab before we know it. Who knows. Maybe they already are.
Horner predicted that the concept depicted in the movies, bringing dinosaurs back to life from DNA, would be achieved in five to ten years during a PEOPLE magazine interview from 2015. That means today we could be just one year away from seeing it happen, as teams of scientists from Harvard and Yale have been busily working away at it.
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However, over the course of the Jurassic Park movies, the idea for how to bring the dinosaurs back changed dramatically. In the movies, the dinos were created in a lab using ancient DNA found in fossils. Today, that option has been all but ruled out since the DNA, even in the best-preserved specimens is extremely degraded. Instead, scientists can work with DNA that is perfectly intact and probably within just a short distance from you as you read this.
Scientists need not look for DNA in fossils, but in the living dinosaur relatives flying all around us: the birds. Birds, such as chickens, are believed to be the direct descendants of the dinosaurs. Although they may not look like it, their DNA retains the genes of dinosaurs. Now all that is left to do is reverse engineer a “Chickenosaurus” from a chicken. Flipping a genetic switch, they turn on and express the dinosaur traits that lay dormant.
The scientists have already made strides in mutating chickens in the lab, although we don’t know exactly how far they have managed to go.
In a recent podcast for Futureproof, Dr. Horner elaborated on how scientists hope to reverse engineer dinosaurs from living birds.
“We tried many times to get dinosaur DNA out of a dinosaur and we did fail. We just never were able to find it,” said Dr. Horner.
“But living birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, and in fact, we classify birds as avian dinosaurs. In other words, as an actual group of dinosaurs. And so, since they are a group of dinosaurs, they actually have dinosaur DNA.”
According to Horner, hollow bones, feathers, wishbones, and the three-toed foot are all characteristics of birds that were first “invented” or implemented by the dinosaurs. Today’s birds visibly retain those traits, but hiding on their DNA are other traits only the dinosaurs had, such as long bony tails. In fact, birds start growing a boney tail as embryos in the egg but then the gene is “turned off,” and suppressed. Horner says the scientists can find a way to turn the dinosaur genes back on.
Other traits they hope to express are the dinosaur mouth rather than the bird-like beak. The end result will be a bird with a Velociraptor-like snout. Next, they could bring back clawed dinosaur arms, devolved from wings with flight feathers.
“You couldn’t make any of these changes if evolution didn’t work. The whole point is to see if we can retro-engineer a dinosaur-like animal out of a modern living animal,” said Horner.
Of course, the idea is controversial with ethical issues, just like in the movies.
“It’s controversial and some people say ‘Why would you do that?’ And I say, ‘Who would want to make a chihuahua out of a wolf?’ But they did. We have this tendency to want to change the animals we have.”
There are many critics of the idea of recreating the dinos, including Jeff Goldblum, who played Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. Responding to an Entrepreneur article about the subject, he quoted one of his character’s lines on Twitter this month:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should…”
Regardless, scientists are moving full-steam ahead with the Chickenosaurus, while other Harvard scientists work to bring back Wolly Mammoths by inserting their genes into modern-day elephants.
IT’S ALIIIIIVE!! A Harvard geneticist is working to bring the wooly mammoth back to life using frozen DNA found in the North Pole. pic.twitter.com/OEqaw45C6g
— ABC World News Now (@abcWNN) February 17, 2017
Of course, if scientists can reverse engineer a dinosaur from a bird, then what’s to say they can’t reverse engineer a human into a primitive ancestor with gills? Like Jurassic Park, there is already a movie that touches on that as well, The Shape of Water.
— The Shape of Water (@shapeofwater) March 26, 2018
See Dr. Jack Horner discuss bringing dinosaurs back to life below:
More about reptile-bird hybrids from the Smithsonian channel below:
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube