The chances are that you’ve seen the film “Jurassic Park,” where an eccentric billionaire from Scotland builds a theme park that promptly fails after sabotage releases the main attraction: real-life dinosaurs. What you might not know, however, is that the paleontologist consultant for the films and former curator of the Museum of the Rockies, Jack Horner, Ph.D., is currently attempting something similar. Over the past 10 years, paleontologist Horner and developmental biologist Dana Rashid, Ph.D., have been attempting to re-create non-avian dinosaurs using their closest living relative: the chicken.
The DinoChicken project is the latest of many attempts to revive the dinosaurs. The issue with previous attempts was that scientists wanted to use the DNA of extinct species to clone a dinosaur back into existence. In Horner’s TedTalk about the chickenosaurus, he talks about how early on the team had to take a lab to the dig site for the best chance of finding DNA. The material they found was not what they hoped for. “I mean, it was wonderful stuff,” Horner said. “But it’s not dinosaur DNA.” As it turns out, DNA degrades after 6.8 million years, which is a bit of a problem when the animal you wish to clone died at least 66 million years ago. While the complete genome of a non-avian dinosaur might be unusable from fossil remains, that does not mean their genes are entirely lost.
Horner and Rashid are using the chicken as a basis for recreating the dinosaur because many of the genes that existed in non-avian dinosaurs still exist in the chicken genome, they are just shut off. So, the thought process behind the project is to study the chicken genome and “flip” the switch to bring back the desired dinosaur features, effectively reverse-engineering the chicken.
There are quite a few arguments against proceeding with this research. The most obvious criticism being that, since they are bringing back an extinct species, there is no telling how dinosaurs would affect the current ecosystem. Introducing new species without natural predators does negatively impact natural ecosystems. The National Wildlife Federation states on its website that “when a new and aggressive species is introduced into an ecosystem, it may not have any natural predators or controls. It can breed and spread quickly, taking over an area.”
While physically the “chickenosaurus” would look like a non-avian dinosaur as a result of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology, the similarities end there. CRISPR-Cas9 are specialized proteins and DNA sequences scientists use to alter other sequences. Already in nature, there are some chickens born with a mutation that makes them small, with alligator-like teeth along the edge of their beaks. This mutated chicken is known as the talpid chicken. Much like the talpid chicken, the behaviors of the chickenosaurus would remain the same despite the altered appearance. Even in the event that the chickenosaurus mates with normal chickens, the likely result would be a regular chicken. Horner states in his TedTalk how the embryo of birds do have dinosaur features initially, but those features change unless manually prompted to do otherwise.
There are benefits for people from this research as well. As stated by Horner on his GoFundMe page for the project, research on replicating dinosaur-like tails in the chicken might have led to the discovery of the cause of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). Ankylosing Spondylitis is a rare and incurable form of back arthritis seen in humans where inflammation of the spine occurs, potentially leading to segments of the spinal column fusing together. If research did in fact find the cause, scientists studying AS would be one step closer to permanently curing it by shutting off the source gene.
While we are years away from seeing the first chickenosaurus born, there aren’t any strong arguments that outweigh the overwhelming benefits of Horner and Rashid’s research. Assuming the project gets its needed funding, we can expect to see it progress even faster. You can read more about DinoChicken research by visiting, https://www.gofundme.com/f/making-a-live-dinosaur