We’ve seen all the Jurassic Park movies. We’ve seen Carnosaur. Maybe you read the books. Perhaps you loved Dino Riders as a kid. The fact is, everyone wants dinosaurs to be real! Who wouldn’t pay good money to see a Tyrannosaurus rex running around in a zoo? Who hasn’t longed to ride a Triceratops? Now there’s great news: Scientists at Yale and Harvard say they will be able to make dinosaurs – actual extinct dinosaurs – within 5 years! Wow! I cannot wait. There’s only a few small problems, the least of which being almost all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were actually from the Cretaceous.
We need DNA, which is the storehouse of information in our bodies. DNA degrades over time. There are a few molecules of DNA floating around that might be millions of years old, but most DNA can only survive for about 6 million years max. That helps us to fall well short of the several hundred millions years between us and the last dinosaurs. To further complicate things, the mosquito from Jurassic Park that was dug up in the beginning wasn’t even a species that sucked blood. Oops. Even if we could find mosquitos or other invertebrates in amber that suck blood or would otherwise contain dinosaur DNA, the problem is how do we know which DNA is from a dinosaur, and what dinosaur species is it? Imagine if you have a library but all of those books were torn up and tossed into a big pile. And it was a language you had just learned to read.
Maybe ancient DNA won’t do it.
So, people like Dr. Jack Horner (consultant on the Jurassic Park movies and paleontologist) think we need to turn to a very simpler place: birds.
SCIENCE ALERT! For those who aren’t aware, birds are dinosaurs. When the big extinction event wiped out much of the prehistoric life on our planet, it didn’t kill all of the dinosaurs. Birds are part of a group of dinosaurs known as the theropods. The theropods not only contained birds but also all those cool, bipedal dinosaurs we were running from in Jurassic Park. T. rex and the velociraptors are close relatives of pigeons and chickens. How do we know this? They share a bunch of distinct features such as a furcular (wishbones), feathers (some of them, at least), bipedality, air sacks, egg laying, and so on. Birds are just really, really, really specialized dinosaurs that have highly adaptable beaks and flight. We’ve got tons of fossils of both bones and soft tissues (like fossilized feathers and skin) that show their relation.
Oh, and SCIENCE ALERT! The term dinosaur only applies to certain extinct reptiles and birds. Those big, cool flying ones everyone just calls pterodactyls? Not technically dinosaurs. The awesome mosasaur from Jurassic World? That was a gigantic lizard, not a dinosaur.
The big question: CAN WE MAKE DINOSAURS NOW?! Yes. No. Maybe.
STEP 1: WHAT BIG TEETH YOU HAVE
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have discovered a developmental disorder in chickens that cause them to develop teeth instead of beaks. There’s a huge difference between most of the dinosaur species in pop culture and birds. If we can control teeth development in birds, we’ve got a start. Researchers at Harvard and Yale have gotten bird embryos to start developing mouths, too.
STEP 2: GIVE ME A HAND
A few species of birds still have fingers or claw structures at some point in development. Hoatzin – a pheasant-like bird from South America – spends its childhood with claws for climbing around until it can fly. As for getting actual hands on a bird that can open a door to a kitchen, that’s a little tougher but certainly not impossible. We know many of the genes that control for limb development (Google Hox genes), and we know that the ancestors to birds hand hands. It might be as simple as switching off some more modern genes and letting the ancient ones give us bird hands.
STEP 3: A TALL TAIL
This is probably the hardest part. Hopefully some birds still retain the DNA that controls for growing a tail, and it’s just turned off. If that’s true, we should be able to just flip a switch and get a baby bird with a tail.
The scientists like Dr. Horner who say we will have Jurassic Park in 5 years might be stretching it. I would say in 20 years we could easily have a dinosaur. And, yes, it will have feathers because many dinosaurs had feathers or other crazy structures covering their bodies. The only unfortunate thing is that it won’t be a real dinosaur. It will be a bird engineered to look like a dinosaur. That also means it will probably be small. Someone out there needs to start researching the DNA needed to make that chicken-o-saurus at least 10 or 15 feet tall.
If you want a pterosaur that you can use to attack people drinking at Margaritaville or a stegosaurus, good luck. Those have body plans far away from birds. If you want those guys around, you might have to engineer an entirely new organism from scratch. We can’t currently do that. The best we could do is maybe engineer some glowing bacteria that could grow into colonies that spell out an apology for all our failures as scientists.
Be sure to come back to Nerdbot soon for my article about whether or not my giant, genetically engineered chicken-o-saurus is able to cause as much destruction in San Diego as the Tyrannosaur did in The Lost World. Although, maybe we could just make advanced robotic dinosaurs. Or synthetic replicant ones like Blade Runner! Hmmm…