Dinosaurs have captured the imagination for centuries since their disappearance 65 million years ago. Since then, the media has attempted ressurected this amazing group of animals and their environment through films, novels, encyclopedias, kids books, scientific journals, etc. Who wouldn't want to see them up close and personal? Now it might be possible. New techniques in genetics brings back the hope of seeing these great animals alive again.
The novel Jurassic Park suggests that one can extract dinosaur DNA from mosquitos fossilized in amber. In fact, one geneticist attempted to do just that...or rather using a slightly different method and from a relatively younger mosquito. The result was an apparent DNA strand, yet when it was attempted by others, people gave up when they got no DNA , leading to the idea that maybe the DNA was a contaminant from the scientist. Thus, diminishing the hope of resurrecting these fantastic animals.
However, Dr. John R. Horner has another idea, if you recall from my Wired article post. If you DO recall, he mentions that modern birds have the same genes as the avian-theropods (Coelurosaurs, mainly). They're just turned off or slightly modified. In fact, these "old-dogs" can learn new tricks. Experimenting with these genes (more specifically, these hox genes, or genes that make up the body plan of an organism. Hox genes correspond to a specific body part.), is Horner's former student Hans Larsson notices that as an chicken embryo develops, the embryo has about 16 vertebrae in their tails and then it shrinks to about 4-5 vetebrae in their tails. Larsson then attempts to see if he can keep the gene active longer than usual. In fact, it works. He not only succeeds in keeping the gene on in the chicken, he manages to extend the tail about 3 more vertebrae. Developmental Biologist Mathew Harris has managed to cause a bird's feet to develop downy feathers like the Dromaeosaurs would've had and the Chinese breed of chicken the silky bird. Harris and his mentor found that a chicken mutant was starting to develop embryonic teeth. Suddenly, Horner's idea of retro-engineering of birds into theropod dinosaurs seems possible.
However, it's not as easy as it sounds. Not only do they have to identify the particular genes, but they have to find the right mix of chemicals to start the fertilization process and to create the enzymes needed to control the genes as in what genes are turned on/off and when. Despite this setback, Horner and Larrson believe that at the rate at which we're decoding genomes and the rate at which the science of genetics is racing, we may be able to retro-engineer dinosaurs (mainly theropods) from modern birds within this century. Jurassic Park? Probably not. Living theropod dinosaurs or something like it? Yes!
Author's Note: Information obtained from the Discovery Channel documentary: "Dinosaurs: Return to Life?"
Author's Note: Wondering about the bird wings and the fore-limbs of Dinosaurs? I believe that at the rate at which Genetics is racing, we may able to find the gene that keeps the fingers separate and the arm long and capable of grasping prey and find the right enzymes and chemicals (with the right mixture, of course.) we could keep that gene turned on. Like I said, sounds easy, right? Well, easier said than done fits this situation. However, it will happen within this century I believe and you may see a theropod walking around in a zoo before you kick the bucket. That's the deal with the fore-limbs of the bird embryos and the theropods.