Jurassic Park is the story of humans playing god and bringing extinct creatures back from Death’s chilly embrace. As with all of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novels, it doesn’t go well for us. But it’s just that, right? Science fiction, not a kernel of truth anywhere to be found.
Well, maybe not. Jack Horner (the paleontological advisor to the Jurassic Park movies) has had a little pet project going on for a while now: reverse genetically engineering a chicken into a dinosaur.
Ok so it’s not a lawyer-munching Tyrannosaurus rex, but this chickenosaurus (as Horner is calling it) does have some exciting implications for the field of genetics. Creating a dinosaur out of a chicken is, at least cosmetically, a surprisingly easy feat: teeth, arms and hands, a long tail, and a modified snout. That last entry was actually achieved through experimentation of chicken embryos by Horner’s team.
You see, as dinosaurs evolved into birds, certain genes were modified. By analyzing two genes involved in facial development, Horner’s team found that they behaved differently in birds than in reptiles. By altering this behavior, their chicken embryo developed a reptilian snout as opposed to a beak. Not done there, they found to their complete surprise that the embryo had also developed a reptilian palate (the roof of the mouth), a surprise find as they were only expecting to alter the outer structure of the beak.
This development is promising, but there are still unanswered questions. Even if we were able to genetically construct a dinosaur from a chicken, would it work right? There’s no guarantee that by simply reactivating the genes for reptilian features like snouts, arms and tails that the nervous system will wire itself accordingly. The brain may not be able to communicate with these limbs. What if the resulting creature possesses the body of a dinosaur but the absurdly misplaced instincts of a chicken?
There are many questions to be answered, but the first signs seem promising. Through the power of genetics, even a “glow-in-the-dark unicorn” [Horner] is not impossible, but now ethics get involved. To quote the Jurassic Park movie: “Your scientists were so concerned with whether they could, they didn’t stop to consider whether they should.”