Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Building a chicken that bites October 15, 2013 • Published 10/15/13

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In a TEDTalk that has been viewed more than a half-million times and a resulting article in Wired magazine, Jack Horner, MSU Regents Professor of Paleontology, talked about his efforts to re-create a dinosaur out of a chicken embryo.

A recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, Horner is one of the world’s most widely recognized paleontologists, not only because he is the adviser for the Jurassic Park films (the fourth of which is expected next year), but also because he was a leader in the now common theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded social creatures more like birds than cold-blooded animals like lizards.

Horner’s latest research theorizes that by using the embryos of contemporary chickens, which are actually categorized as avian dinosaurs, it may be possible for scientists to reactivate the evolutionary remnants in chicken DNA, called atavisms. He proposes that this could result in dinosaur characteristics in the avian, such as a tail or teeth. His project is also described in his book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever.

What has happened with the chickensaurus project since 2011?

Horner: With private funding from George Lucas, I hired two post docs (Anne Blackwell and Dana Rashid) to work on the project here at MSU. Purchasing new equipment and working with developmental biologist Dr. Christa Merzdorf here at MSU and Dr. Hans Larsson at McGill University, the post docs are currently searching for the genetic programs that control tail length. Specifically, we are looking to determine how the tails of birds transformed from their lengthy structures in dinosaurs to the shortened structures seen in living birds. Chemical probes are injected into growing chicken embryos to monitor when particular genes either activate or repress cell growth in the tail region. It is hoped we can discover how to lengthen the tail, in effect reversing the evolutionary trend that formed the shortened tail. This, of course, is only a first step in the process of recreating dinosaur characteristics in a bird.

Why is this project important?

Understanding the developmental genetic processes and pathways that have formed animal morphologies during evolution have tremendous potential to aid future genetic researchers attempting to discover causes of genetic diseases. But, even simpler than that is the prospect of showing how simple evolutionary processes worked. How tiny little genetic modifications or mutations can affect large morphological characteristics. And, last, but not least, it will produce cool looking animals that kids will like. If we can comfortably modify wolves to Neapolitan Mastiffs or Puli, and people pay actual money for them—imagine the commercial market for an animal that looks like a Velociraptor?

How long will we have to wait to see this chicken with a bite?

That is a good question. The process that the researchers have to follow is not progressive, meaning that once one genetic pathway is discovered it doesn’t mean the next will be easier to find. On the contrary, the research is more like a shotgun blast where the researchers are trying all sorts of different combinations in hope of finding the right pathways for each characteristic. If we are lucky, it could happen quickly—say in a matter of a couple years—or if unlucky, it might take a decade or more. It’s simply not predictable; but I’m an optimist, and we have great, creative people working on the project!