Can Scientists Create Dinosaurs From Chickens?

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On its face the idea of creating a dinosaur from a chicken seems absurd. Dinosaurs are extinct after all, and chickens...are chickens. But the science isn’t as bizarre as you might think. Because chickens actually are dinosaurs. Or rather they’re evolved from dinosaurs. Which means that their genome still contains ancient dinosaur building instructions that have been altered, deprecated or simply shut off. In theory a thorough accounting off all the genetic information in a chicken’s genome, cross-referenced with what we know about dinosaurs from their skeletal structures and the sparing amounts of soft tissue we’ve found, as well as the well-documented changes we can chart from dinosaur to bird in the fossil record, we could rejigger the chicken genome into something approximating a dinosaur.

There has been some progress made by researchers around the globe. A team in Chile successfully inhibited genes in a chicken embryo that stopped the bones in the chicken’s leg from developing the way we see leg bones in dinosaur fossils and instead has them develop like chicken bones. Specifically the fibula, which is short and tapered in modern chickens, can be seen, for a very brief period in an early embryonic state, poised to develop differently. By switching off certain genes at this point researchers were able to coax the leg to develop a more tubular structure, with a longer configuration and wider, more bulbous end. In essence they created a chicken with dinosaur legs.

Another team of researchers based in the United States managed to create a chicken embryo with a dinosaur face. Specifically they converted the bird’s distinctive beak into the sort of snout we see in transitional fossils, ancient birds that resembled dinosaurs but were starting to develop avian features.

The team methodically studied the physical structures, and the genes that seem to encode them across a number of different species, looking for genetic markers that indicated which specific part of the chicken genome coded for its beak. Eventually they discovered a group of genes involved in coding facial features in birds that animals lacking a beak didn’t have. Switching these genes off caused the embryo’s face to develop in a decidedly non-birdlike way. Instead of developing a beak it developed a dinosaur’s snout.

Scientists are excited by these discoveries, but also realistic about what they mean for the future of “dinosaur” development. Reverse engineering a chicken and altering its genetic structure could eventually give birth to an animal that resembles what we THINK a dinosaur looked like but we won’t know if it actually resembles a dinosaur. Nor will we know if its internal structures are dinosaur or something else.

This is because our information regarding dinosaurs is painfully incomplete. We have bones and fossils and miniscule amounts of ancient soft tissue. We can make educated guesses based on comparative analysis with moden animals and other ancient creatures, but a lot of what we know is based on extrapolation. Since we’ll be the ones editing the genome it’s likely that we’ll be selecting it to conform to our pre-existing beliefs about dinosaurs, not revealing things we didn’t already know. In that sense they’ll be very similar to the digital dinosaurs effects wizards create for movies like Jurassic Park. These dinosaurs look like what we imagine dinosaurs looked like, not what they actually looked like. Because for the most part, other than their skeletal structures we don’t know what they looked like.  So it’s more accurate to say we can engineer chickens into chickosaurs, not dinosaurs.

But you know what? Even a chickosaur would be pretty awesome.

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