Scientists Are Working to Bring Back Dinosaur-Like Traits with Chicken

By modifying their DNA to surface inherited traits.
Can Emir
A chicken embrioTheCrimsonMonkey/iStock

We thought that all the dinosaurs went extinct when an asteroid hit the earth some 65 million years ago until recently. Now we know that some of the dinosaur species, mostly avians, survived and become birds. Scientists are trying to tweak chicken DNA to produce atavistic, dinosaur-like, traits that are embedded in the genes of birds for years.

A research team led by Yale paleontologist and developmental biologist Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar and Harvard developmental biologist Arhat Abzhanov conducted the first successful reversion of a bird’s skull features back in 2015. The team replicated ancestral molecular development to transform chicken embryos in a laboratory to turn its beak into a snout and palate configuration similar to that of small dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Archaeopteryx.

“I wanted to know what the beak was skeletally, functionally and when this major transformation occurred from a normal vertebrate snout to the very unique structures used in birds,” Bhullar said.

After a year from turning beak into a snout, another researcher from the University of Chile, João Francisco Botelho, reversed the evolutionary traits by inhibiting the IHH gene in the chicken in 2016. The experiment resulted in regular chickens developing tubular, dinosaur-like fibulas on their lower legs, reconnecting the fibula to the ankle, which is a trait that was lost in the transition, or evolution, from ancient dinosaurs to their modern avian relatives. 

"Unlike other animals, the calcaneum in bird embryos presses against the lower end of the fibula. They are so close, they have even been mistaken for a single element by some researchers. Experimental downregulation of IHH signaling at a postmorphogenetic stage led to a tibia and fibula of equal length. The fibula is longer than in controls and fused to the fibulare, whereas the tibia is shorter and bent" the team wrote in the report

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The results, published in Evolution, mark the second time Botelho has tweaked bird DNA to create dinosaur-like traits. His first study, published in Scientific Reports, reconfigured the toes of birds perched toes into more flat-footed anatomy. Like prior experiments, the embryos were destroyed before they could mature and hatch.

While these studies are highly controversial, the idea of a park consisting of avian species with dinosaur-like traits would be really cool to visit if the park promises to keep kids from causing a power failure like in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park.

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