Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Revenge of the Birds"- Wired Magazine Interview with Dr. Jack Horner

Today I read an interesting interview with Dr. John R. Horner of Montana in Wired magazine (for those who don't know, Wired is a magazine that covers Technology in this day and age, even Genetic.) Dr. Horner has the idea that you can "reverse engineer" avian embryos into Dinosaurs. Basically, what evolution did, was turn off certain Dinosaurian phenotypes (visible characteristics) in birds. It's like a Genetic "light switch" if you will. Avian embryos already show dinosaurian (mainly theropod) traits like teeth, three digit limbs an extra set of vertebrae to give it a tail. Already, it's a dinosaur "evolving" with each bird's offspring. What Horner proposes is to keep those genes active so it hatches a Dinosaur. The three digit fore arms would fold inward to form the wing. So, it's limbs and DNA that make a bird, not feathers. Of course, like all scientific ideas, there's always repercussions and problems with it. So, Jurassic Park may not be as far off as once thought. The question remains on how to do it. That's where Wired came in. They interviewed him about this shocking proposal. Here's a sample of the interview:

Wired: Dinochicken-walk me through the concept.

Dr. John Horner: Birds are descendants of Dinosaurs. They carry their DNA. So in it's early stages, a chicken embryo will develop dinosaur traits like a long tail, teeth, and three-fingered hands. If you can find the genes that cancel the tail and fuse the fingers to build a wing-and turn those genes off-you can grow anmals with dinosaur characteristics.

Wired: It's a romantic idea, that dinosaurs can live on in bird form.

Dr. Horner: Dinosaurs are not extinct; they're still with us in a sense. Birds look different, but it's all cosmetic. By tweaking some genes, we can bring out the underlying similarities. Yes, it's a wild plan, but I like to think about things backwards.

Wired: You were a consultant on Jurassic Park...Should we be worried here?

Dr. Horner: Look, it's not like dinochicken will overrun the world. If he mates with a chicken, you'll still get a chicken. Eventually we might make more animals that look like dinosaurs, but we won't have Velociraptors on the loose.

Wired: Thorny ethical issues?

Dr. Horner: If you think we're playing God, maybe. But we're already modifying plants and mice. I don't see a lot of people jumping up and down complaining about better tomatoes.

It's an interesting proposition, and Horner makes some pretty witty remarks. So, Jurassic Park could be a reality. (You can read the rest of the article here at Wired's website.) That is still not a reality yet, but the way Genetics has gone and is going, having revived Dinosaurs might be in the near future. Then come the moral and ethical questions or, simply, "Should we or shouldn't we?"
The most recurring theme in Michael Crichton's novels have been that Science ventures always go wrong because of careless mistakes by scientists. That may seem like it's a mistake and no big deal, but, it can be extremely dangerous, especially with manipulating the Biosphere. In fact, if an error occurs, we try to fix the problem then never admit the error was with us and blame it on the subject. The point is NEVER manipulate the Natural World unless you know what you're doing, even then, be careful. And, if something goes wrong, admit your error and take responsibility for it and try to fix it if possible (Not all our mistakes can be us.). If you can't leave it alone, learn from it and move on. Experiments need to be considered at every angle. Think of the consequences. Science is a game of chance and learning, but a dangerous one.


Naveed said...

I remember watching a show about dinosaurs where they actually talked about doing this very thing towards the end.

It'd be interesting to see how a birds personality, instincts, and behavior might change if we did do such an experiment.

Raptor Lewis said...

Naveed- That's true. I wonder if it would even change. We may gain insight into the Dinosaurs' instincts. However, remember that all organisms have the same basic instincts.

Andy said...

As Jack is quick to point out, we're not really getting a dinosaur here -- only a bird with some dinosaur features turned back on. If this does indeed come to pass, the important thing will be a better understanding of the various genes that control all of the morphologies. Still cool in its own right!