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.
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.
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.
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.
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