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Why we're creating a 'chickenosaurus'

By Jack Horner, Special to CNN
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Jack Horner: Making a "Chickenosaurus"
  • Jack Horner: Efforts to recreate dinosaurs from fossils haven't worked
  • He says dinosaur DNA has not survived over millennia
  • Horner: Birds are cousins of dinosaurs and have genes that can be activated
  • He says it's possible to engineer a chicken with three-fingered hands and a tail

Editor's note: Jack Horner is Regents' professor of paleontology at Montana State University and the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. Horner, who discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, was the technical adviser to Steven Spielberg for the movie "Jurassic Park" and its sequel. He spoke at the TED conference in Long Beach, California in March. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it distributes on its website.

(CNN) -- When I was a young boy, I dreamed of two things: one, to become a paleontologist, and another, to have a pet dinosaur. I have become a paleontologist, and now I strive to figure out a way to bring back or create my living dinosaur.

I was very fortunate during my early years as a paleontologist, in that my field crews and I made some remarkable discoveries indicating dinosaurs to have been extremely social. We found a dinosaur nesting ground with clutches of eggs and nests containing the skeletons of babies, and massive accumulations of juvenile and adult skeletons. These discoveries led to our current understanding of dinosaurs as colonial nesters and good parents, and animals that traveled in gigantic herds.

These social behaviors were depicted in Michael Crichton's novel and Steven Spielberg's movie "Jurassic Park." But it was the book and movie's premise that dinosaurs could be brought back to life -- from DNA found in insects that bit the dinosaurs -- that interested me the most.

Some scientists had attempted to retrieve DNA from insects in amber, and unfortunately, they had not found it possible. In 1993, when the movie was released, my graduate student Mary Schweitzer and I got a National Science Foundation grant to attempt to extract DNA from a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Is anatomy destiny?

Alas, we didn't find DNA in the dinosaur either, but Mary went on to discover soft tissues and even proteins in another T-rex we excavated in 2001.

But even though we didn't find DNA in an extinct dinosaur, I decided to see if we could retro-engineer a living dinosaur -- all birds are living dinosaurs -- and make it look like an extinct dinosaur.

My colleague Hans Larsson, using developmental biology techniques at McGill University, was studying the transition between extinct dinosaurs and birds, trying to understand how birds came to lose their tails and transform hands to wings. I figured if he could figure this out, we could reverse the methods and make a bird with hands and a tail. It was the beginning of the "Build a Dinosaur Project."

The Build a Dinosaur Project continues as researchers attempt to identify two atavistic genes proposed to control the appearance of the three-fingered hand and the primitive tail. This search involves the knocking out of target genes in early developing chicken embryos. Making a car for blind drivers

This is a long process that can take years -- so as we wait, the prospect of a chicken-dinosaur is being used as a medium to explain developmental biology and evolutionary biology to the general public.

It is a simple way to demonstrate how evolution works, by showing that the genes for these primitive characteristics continue to reside in DNA -- even when they are of no particular use at the present, but when they might be useful in the animal's evolutionary future. The chicken-dinosaur is also an icon for genetic engineering in animals, providing a focus for discussions concerning ethics.

story chickenosaurus courtesy.jpg

It is interesting, for example, that some people consider simple genetic engineering, such as the dino-chicken, to be unethical, while they find selective breeding -- potentially producing the same results over time -- to be an ethical endeavor.

I think of the dino-chicken as a tool to educate people about the extraordinary characteristics of evolution and give them the primer knowledge to make future decisions about these types of biological research. You can read more about this stuff in my book entitled "How To Build a Dinosaur."

As I stated in my TED talk, this is all about attempting to satisfy the aspirations of sixth-graders (and children of all ages) and bring back dinosaurs or at least something that looks more like a dinosaur than a bird. Unfortunately, our first steps in this process will likely produce an animal that looks like the image above, but it will be a start, and by the time the sixth graders are our research scientists, maybe they will be able to create animals more to their liking.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jack Horner.

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