First came the book. Then the movies. Next, the actual dinosaur?
Ahead of the June 12 release of Jurassic World, paleontologist Jack Horner—who advised on the four Jurassic films—has been on the interview circuit touting the real-world science behind the sci-fi: and yes, it might be possible to reverse engineer dinosaur traits in modern birds.
In the Stephen Spielberg-produced, Colin Trevorrow-directed film, Jurassic World is a fully realized theme park, 22 years after the unfortunate events of Jurassic Park. That is, until commercial interests trump scientific ethics, resulting in the Indominus Rex—a hybrid dinosaur that never existed, with unknown intelligence and savagery. Naturally, Rex gets loose…because, Hollywood…and causes all sorts of chaos.
All of which creates a titillating and unnerving backdrop to a recent experiment by Harvard and Yale researchers that produced a chicken with a dinosaur snout and Horner’s own ambitions on waking up dormant ancestral genes still present in the DNA of birds, the descendants of dinosaurs, whose DNA no longer exists.
Horner’s Build a Dinosaur Project, prompted by an early Jurassic World script and based on theories outlined in his 2009 book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever and a 2011 TED talk, intends to create what he’s dubbed a Chickensaurus by “turning on” the vestigial dinosaur DNA responsible for such traits as long tails, protruding snouts and teeth, and arms and hands instead of wings.
“If we can reinstate ancestral characteristics in a bird to make a dinosaur, you can’t have ancestral characteristics unless you have an ancestor,” said Horner. “That is proof of evolution.”
During a Tuesday press conference at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Horner referred to the success of the Harvard/Yale experiment as “proof of concept,” adding that scientists would need to introduce an enamel-producing gene into chicken DNA to produce dinosaur-like teeth.
“If you’re going to try to make a dinosaur, transgenically is as good a way as finding ancestral genes,” he said. “Transgenic dinosaurs are what we created in Jurassic World. We have a hybrid dinosaur that’s a mixture of several types of dinosaurs, plus mixtures of genes from several types of animals.”
“We will make the dino-chicken-like animal pretty soon,” he said. “We’re moving pretty quickly, but making a dinosaur that would look like a velociraptor would take a lot longer. The more genes we learn about, what they do, and how to turn them on and off, the closer we come. All birds share a common ancestor. Once we have the technology, we think it’ll work on any bird. Chickens just happen to be the easiest birds to come by.”
Down the road, Horner said his research might help correct human genetic disorders. “Any kind of genetic engineering is going to produce the possibility of medical implications. Just knowing what genes do and don’t, how to turn them on and off. We’re looking at how vertebrate actually form, and how to add vertebrate. As soon as we know how to do that, we can apply it to human genetic spinal diseases.
Some of the film’s plot points involve trainable and social dinosaurs that switch allegiances between human and hybrid, a dramatic extrapolation of what scientists have gleaned about bird and dinosaur behavior.
“This brings up the whole intelligence thing with dinosaurs and this side of that [evolutionary] tree,” said Horner. “We’re so mammal-centric. We think we’re so smart; we’re even mammal-centric about where our brain is located—in our heads. Dinosaurs not only had a cranial brain, but a pelvic brain, enlarged ganglia that birds also have. If you add together the volume of the brain and ganglia, it’s as high as most mammals. Parrots are really smart and we don’t think of ducks as smart, and their brain/body ratios are about the same.
“We also know dinosaurs were social. For years, we’ve found dinosaur nesting grounds and evidence that they cared for their young,” Horner added. “And birds live in social groups. That had to come from somewhere; I don’t think they invented it on their own. We think of birds and reptiles as separate, but birds are dinosaurs, and therefore, reptiles. If you look at it genetically, crocodiles are closer to birds than lizards.”
Say all this reverse genetic engineering works out, and decades from now, the Jurassic franchise attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park could have dinosaurs for real. Any chance of this getting the ok from business affairs?
“We know that dinosaurs are not that scary,” said Horner. “You could have dinosaurs on the Serengeti. As long as you keep your windows up, you could go on safari and look at them. They’re not going to tear open your vehicle to get you. If you went to Jurassic Park, you’d see a whole bunch of dinosaurs sleeping. Animals also don’t kill for fun. It’s dangerous to kill another animal. You are putting you’re life in danger. You could have Jurassic World at the LA Zoo. There’s a lot worse things running up the freeway.”