Chickenosaurus lives! But should we really play God with genes?

In what has to be one of the biggest ‘ewwww-factor’ experiments in a while, paleontologists at Yale recently tweaked chicken DNA to give the birds toothed jaws, a bit like Velociraptor. Although there was a lot of work involved in finding out which two DNA strands to tamper with, the process apparently didn’t add anything to the chicken genome – it merely switched off protein-inhibitors that stopped existing genes from working.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...
“I used to be a chicken. Now I’m a fake GMO Velociraptor. And I’m MAD!”

The result was dino-jaws instead of a beak. The fact that this could be done has been known since 2011. It’s just – well, the actual doing of it is a bit mad. We don’t know what gene-tampering will produce, and the team who did it were surprised by the extent of the changes they produced – the birds also developed dino-palates.

Still, this is just a lab test. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Uh…yah…

It’s like this folks. Sure, science is cool. We wouldn’t have all the things we enjoy today without it. But sometimes, it goes overboard. And to me, this is one of those moments. OK, we can do it – but should we play God? We don’t actually know the consequences, and it worries me that we might find out the hard way.

I’m not talking horror movies – I doubt we’ll end up with Chickenosaurs lurking in dark corners, waiting to leap out on hapless humans, Jurassic Franchise style. But genetics can so often throw curve balls. What else does that genetic alteration do? We don’t know – and when we push the edges, when we industrialise science we don’t fully understand, bad shit happens, usually out of left field. The words ‘thalidomide’ (‘stops morning sickness’), radium (‘go on, lick the brush before you hand-paint the watch dial’) and one or two other tragic miscalculations spring to mind.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.
Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Plus side (a very, very small plus side) is that it looks like some science has come out of the experiment – specifically, how birds developed beaks rather than the toothed jaws of other dinosaurs. But that particular discovery, surely, didn’t need us to make a mutant Dinochicken to nail it home. We already know that birds didn’t ‘evolve from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs; a specialist flying variety, but dinosaurs through and through. Just this year, paleontologists pushed back the likely origin of birds, meaning they lived alongside their cousins for much of the Jurassic and Cretaceous epochs – underscoring the fact that they were simply another variety, rather than descendants, of the dinosaur family.

The compelling picture has long since emerged showing how this all worked. Dinosaurs first emerged during the Triassic epoch. They differed from mammals and lizards, and though initially they were lizard-like (as were mammals – think ‘Synapsids’), dinosaurs developed their own unique form over time. They had pneumatised bones; many appear to have had feathers for insulation and display; they seem to have been warm-blooded; they laid eggs in nests and they slept with their head tucked under one arm. Many were bipedal, their mostly horizontal bodies balanced by long tails; and we know their arms were feathered – becoming wings in the flying variety.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.
Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Many dinosaur families, we now think, became progressively more like modern birds in appearance as time went on. By the Cretaceous period, many dinosaur types – certainly to judge by their fossils – couldn’t fly, but they were bipedal, glossy feathered and brightly coloured. Troodonts, for instance. We also think some had wattles, like turkeys. The feathered varieties confirmed so far include many members of the Tyrannosaur family, not all of which were the size of the one we know and love. Fact is that few dinosaurs were huge, and many species underwent a dramatic shrinking during the Cretaceous period.

Were we suddenly cast into a late Cretaceous forest, we’d find ourselves surrounded by dinosaurs – which to our eyes would look like funny (and quite small) ground-living ‘pseudo-birds’ with toothed ‘beak-like’ snouts. Other dinosaurs – recognisable to us as true birds – might also be in evidence. Birds, themselves, are thought to have lost their teeth and developed beaks around 116 million years ago, though some, such as Hesperornis, still had teeth more recently. Early birds, we think, were a bit rubbish at flying.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!
I’m on the right taking an SLR selfie while being mobbed by dinosaurs, thanks to the wonders of green screen.

When the K-T extinction event hit the planet 65 million years ago, it seems, flying dinosaurs (as in, birds) managed to survive it. They were then able to radiate out into new environmental niches, left empty by the extinction. On some of the continents, mammals also filled the niches left empty by dinosaurs. But not all.

Offshore islands – such as the New Zealand archipelago – retained their surviving dinosaur biota. And it’s intriguing that the larger New Zealand varieties – such as the moa (Dinornis)– have skeletal features and feather structure usually associated with ‘archaic’ bird fossils. They survived right up into the last millennium – succumbing, finally, when New Zealand became the last large habitable land mass on the planet to be settled by humans. And why did they die out? Alas, to judge by the industrial-scale oven complexes the Polynesian settlers built at river mouths, moa were delicious.

All of this was known well before we tried playing God with chicken genes. OK – the experiment can’t be undone. But do we need to do it again? I think not.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “Chickenosaurus lives! But should we really play God with genes?

  1. I have seen Jurassic Park, doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. Why don’t they work on trying to bring back some recently extinct species instead – something cute and fluffy that won’t eat us…?

    1. There’s been some serious consideration at reviving the moa – which would be great, except it seems to be impossible… sigh… I had the privilege, once, of being able to see the preserved moa feathers and skin held at Otago Museum – this when they weren’t on display, backstage, as were – but alas, the genetic material in them (or any of the other soft-tissue bits they’ve found) isn’t restorable. The nearest living relative, it turns out, is the South American Tinamous, but that doesn’t help much…

  2. “But do we need to do it again? I think not.”

    I think not as well.

    But will we do it again? Sadly, almost certainly. We seem to have no self restraint on implementing bad ideas.

    1. It keeps happening, doesn’t it. The concern I have here is that the genes they have reactivated may do something else, perhaps affect (reduce) disease resistance, with all that this implies. And while the current specimens are in the lab, human nature being what it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody else repeats the experiment to make stock for sale. Curiosity value, until the full impute of the change – whatever that might be – is discovered. Probably not apocalyptic, but certainly expensive to clean up the mess.

  3. I just feel like the whole project is part of trying to impart dinosaur-style coolness on chickens, and that just does not work. Pointing out how much chickens have in common with dinosaurs doesn’t make chickens cooler, although it doesn’t make dinosaurs less cool either. I think if chickens are going to be made cool it has to be by pointing out cool stuff they do, like sometimes hide out in trees, instead.

    1. I have to admit that a part of me would really like to see dinosaur coolness in the flesh…but yeah, chickens do cool stuff too. We think them ‘bird brained’ but I still recall a time in Rarotonga where I couldn’t have breakfast without the local wild bantams turning up – they knew exactly where the food was, when it was served, and had no hesitation about going to get it. Smart? In chicken terms, absolutely.

  4. You know, 99% of the time I agree with you, but on this one, I can’t. Yes, flipping the genetic switches on a chicken might do something unexpected, but I don’t believe anything truly catastrophic would happen from it. I mean, these test animals wouldn’t (shouldn’t) be released to the public or be permitted for people to eat. As purely test subjects kept only in the lab, I don’t see any major harm from them. If you were talking about bacteria or viruses I’d be seriously concerned. A chicken with teeth? Oh it might decide birdseed is…for the birds, and something like fresh scientist gets their tummy rumbling. As long as it isn’t 15ft tall and rampaging through San Diego, I don’t see this chicken causing the public harm.

    As with any powerful tool, genetics can be dangerous. That isn’t a good reason to stop using it. It just means handle with extreme care. Fire is also extremely dangerous. Thousands are killed by it every year. In the past it has wiped out whole cities. So should we stop using it? Without fire we’d still be scrounging for nuts and berries in Ethiopia, and huddling in a dark cave at night hoping the leopards don’t come to visit. A LOT of bad things have happened because of fire, but a lot of good things have happened too.

    I would say we should go forward with genetic animal testing, but be extremely careful with it. Mr. Malcomb from Jurassic Park would disagree with me, but so be it. Satellites were sent into space even though it was dangerous because one might reenter onto a populated area. Now, we enjoy the fruits of GPS in our cars. Airplanes have always been dangerous, yet now many of us can see foreign lands for ourselves. Life is dangerous, period. Let’s not suddenly shy away from the unknown. Let’s continue learning and exploring.

    1. Having different viewpoints is good – gets discussion going & one of us might think of something the other hadn’t, and vice versa – it’s all good. And I agree with your reasoning about pushing forwards and learning. It’s important. You’re also right that we can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. But what worries me is where people aren’t careful – or where the first guys are, but the second lot aren’t. I doubt there’s any risk of dinochickens getting loose; what worries me is that the gene might do something else more subtle, something we don’t know about – and which might do something unfortunate to the 19-billion odd chickens around the place. I think the largest cost would also be just that – the financial cost. It doesn’t necessarily mean not doing any of this stuff – but it does mean discovering a lot more first. And who knows – if we did that, we might find out how to reverse-engineer dinosaurs out of existing bird stock, which I have to admit would be kinda cool. But we’d be doing it properly.

      1. Being safe is really the key. Even making food is dangerous when you get down to it. Recently, the were outbreaks of salmonella all over Europe. Folks have to be extremely careful when handling food. That goes from the manufacturer all the way down to the ordinary housewife.

        In the case of dino-chickens, they should also be treated with care. Handlers should wear full-on hazmat suits and pass through airlocks and quarantine areas to access the animals. Reason being, we don’t how how viruses might mutate in genetically modified chickens, particularly ones where their digestive system has been modified to suit a meat-eating animal. And if that chicken’s already got teeth, I might suggest handlers wear kevlar armor like the kind divers wear when swimming with sharks.

        I for one, would love to see dinosaurs reverse engineered. It would be very tricky to say the least. Dinosaurs evolved in a far different environment than our own. I don’t think we’ll see a Jurassic Park very soon, but I’d like to see what scientists can come up with.

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