According to a report in Discovery News, such “reverse evolution” has been successfully performed in mice and flies, but those studies focused on re-introducing just a few bygone traits.
The dinochicken project, instead, aims to bring back multiple dinosaur characteristics – such as a tail, teeth and forearms – by changing the levels of regulatory proteins that have evolved to suppress these characteristics in birds.
“Birds are dinosaurs, so technically we’re making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur,” said palaeontologist and project leader Jack Horner of the Montana State University.
“The only reason we’re using chickens instead of some other bird is that the chicken genome has been mapped, and chickens have already been exhaustively studied,” he added.
Although the plan seems more like out of the movie Jurassic Park, Horner assured it is real and is already underway.
“A number of people in a number of different places are moving forward with the project slowly and carefully,” he said.
One such researcher is Hans Laarson of McGill University in Canada, who is now analysing the genes involved in tail development and researching ways of manipulating chicken embryos in order to “awaken the dinosaur within”.
“There is a lot of information stored in our genes that we don’t use – genes that determine features that evolution has suppressed, for various reasons,” said Kevin Padian, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley and a curator at the UC Museum of Paleontology.
“We now have the tools to ‘reverse-engineer’ some of those constraints and produce traits that look a bit more like those ancient features,” he added. “This tells us how genetics, development and evolution are related, so it’s tremendously important.”
NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT
According to Horner, there is no danger of the proposed dinochicken escaping and populating the world with dinosaurs, since only the chicken’s development - and not its genome - would have been affected.
So even if it did somehow escape and could mate, the result would just be a regular chicken, the palaeontologist said.
In any case, if a chicken embryo does not grow properly in the lab, or if it could not survive comfortably, then “we would never let it hatch”, Horner said.
When and if the chickenosaurus is created, he looks forward to bringing it out on a leash during lectures: “We’re always looking for novel ways to get the general public interested in science, and you have to admit, it would be better than a slide show for demonstrating evolution!”