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

When ethics overcome history

Another iconic building in my home town, Napier, New Zealand, bit the dust a while back. The Williams building – 103 years old – survived both the devastating 1931 earthquake and fire that followed.

Panorama I took of Napier's Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far left.

Panorama I took of Napier’s Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far right.

Now it’s gone down before the wrecking ball. And a good thing too. You see, it apparently only met 5 percent of the current earthquake-proofing standard. Ouch. Surviving the 1931 quake and retaining its structural integrity were, it seems, two different things.

The Williams building. Click to enlarge.

The Williams building going…going… Click to enlarge.

It’s the latest in a succession of quake-risk demolitions around the city. A few structures – such as the Paxie building, centre in the photo above, or the old State Theatre (where I first saw Star Wars in 1977) have been gutted and the facades preserved. But original ‘deco’ buildings of the 1930s are limited to a couple of city blocks. A single heritage precinct. When I was a kid, deco filled the town.

....and gone....

….and gone…. Click to enlarge

I know, I can hear the howls of protest now. ‘But – but – you’re interested in history…how can you support knocking it down?’

Easy. History is more than the artefacts it leaves anyway, but the real calculation is more immediate. A few years back, Napier’s Anglican Cathedral hall was also under threat of demolition, in part because it was a pre-quake masonry structure. The Historic Places Trust approached me, wanting me to put my authority and repute as a nationally known historian behind their effort to have it listed and legally protected. I was well aware of that history, of course. But I knew the building was a quake risk –and I hadn’t been given any engineering reports on which to base the professional opinion I was being asked to provide by Historic Places.

The biggest horror story of the 1931 quake was the way a doctor had to euthanise a badly injured woman who was trapped in the ruins of the cathedral – the only way to save her from being burned alive by advancing fires. In was an appalling moment. The decision tore at him for the rest of his life.

I wasn’t going to endorse saving a building where that might happen again. Risking human life or preserving a historic building? It’s a no-brainer, really. So while it was sad to see that building go -and sad, since, to see other structures like the Williams Building disappear – it’s really not a hard choice. What would you do?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The Gallipoli centenary: we must remember them

The centenary of New Zealand’s landings on Gallipoli, this weekend, is also a moment to remember all New Zealand’s war dead. We know who they were; their names are inscribed into memorials from Bluff to Kaitaia, from Palestine to Egypt, to North Africa, to Italy, France, Belgium and many other places.

Names of the New Zealand dead, Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

Names of the New Zealand dead, Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

Here is a list on the wall of the New Zealand Memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres, a photo I took some years ago and which still resonates today. This memorial commemorates the 1200 Kiwis who died between August and October 1917, during what is usually known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – In Flanders Fields

One of the most moving experiences I’ve had as a writer was on the day I visited Ellis Farm, a preserved aid post from the First World War, near Ypres. It was here that Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae, penned what has become the signature verse of the war: In Flanders Fields.

Remains of the aid post in Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote 'In Flanders Fields'.

Remains of the aid post in Essex Farm where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’.

He was inspired by the death of a friend, Alexis Helmer; and during the evening of 2 May 1915 began drafting his famous rondeau. The timing is significant; in 1915, nobody guessed that the war might last another three and a half years. And yet the spectre of death – and the iconic flower of that war, the poppy – already loomed close.

It was an inspiring moment for me to visit that place. And inspiring, I hope, for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – working within the limits and getting a result anyway

It was remarkably difficult to get this photo of sunset over Wellington, New Zealand. The camera I had wasn’t great for low-light shots, and was way too heavy for the tripod I was using, which meant it wobbled everywhere if I so much as breathed near it, let alone hit the shutter.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Sunset over Wellington from Petone beach.

Still, I managed to get a photo that was reasonably illuminated and not too blurry – which I did by trying to work within the limits. And that, to me, is inspiring, because it’s something writers have to do all the time, if you think about it. And yet that doesn’t stop us. Does it? A thought to inspire.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Why does everything taste of chicken, except chicken?

I’ve always had an interest in discovering the secrets of the universe – you know, does dark matter exist, why we can’t have antigravity – and why every weird steak from crocodile to ocelot always has to taste of chicken.

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the original Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

This last has been puzzling me a lot. Not least because even chicken doesn’t taste of chicken. I found that out in 2012 when I spent a few days in Rarotonga. Over there, chickens run wild – as in, not just free range. Wild. We had one perching on our breakfast table several days in a row, hoping to be fed. They don’t get soaked in antibiotics. They don’t get imprisoned in horrible conditions before being lightly killed, dropped through a macerator, and re-constituted into Chicken Niblets. They are entirely natural. And when anybody wants chicken – let’s say to add to the khorma I bought in an Indian restaurant in Awarua – they go out and catch one.

That natural living means that Rarotongan chickens don’t taste like battery chickens. Actually, they don’t even look like battery chickens. They look more like what they actually were before humans got at them, Red Jungle Fowls, which – like every other bird – are actually a variety of flying dinosaur. Recently a geneticist even found out how to switch on the gene that makes chickens grow dino-jaws instead of a beak, a discovery welcomed by other geneticists with loud cries of ‘nooooooo!’ and similar endorsements.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Think birds aren’t dinosaurs? Here’s Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, our friend Gallus Gallus domesticus.

I conclude from all of this that (a) what we call ‘chicken’ doesn’t actually taste of chicken; and (b) if I’m to define ‘tastes of chicken’, I should be thinking of Rarotongan chickens. And I have to say that of all the unusual stuff I’ve eaten over the years, few of them taste of it. For instance:

1. Snail (restaurant in Paris, Rue de Lafayette). These don’t taste of chicken. They taste of garlic flavoured rubber bands.
2. Ostrich (dinner to mark release of one of my books). Definitely not chicken, but could have been confused for filet steak.
3. Something unidentifiable in rice (riverside in Kanchanburi) I know it was meat. It didn’t taste of chicken or, in fact, anything else. I ate it anyway.
4. Goat (my house). Absolutely not chicken. More like a sort of super-strong mutton.
5. Venison (my house). Reminiscent of liver.
6. Duck (my house). Bingo! Yes, this actually did taste of Rarotongan chicken. And duck.

I can only conclude, on this highly – er – scientific analysis, that very little actually tastes of chicken, including chicken. But I may be wrong. Have you ever eaten anything that was meant to taste of chicken – but didn’t?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Quantum physics just might become rainbow gravity

One of the biggest problems with quantum physics – apart from the way it attracts new age woo – is that it doesn’t reconcile with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The two don’t meet when it comes to gravity. And so one of the major thrusts of physics since the 1940s has been to find that elusive ‘theory of everything’.

The COBE satellite map of the CMB. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The COBE satellite map of the Cosmic Microwave Background. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

We shouldn’t suppose, of course, that it’s ‘Einstein vs the world’. Our friend Albert was also pivotal to the development of quantum physics – he published, for example, the first paper describing quantum entanglement in 1935.

But he didn’t like this ‘spooky action at a distance’. To Einstein, intuitively, there was something missing from what he and fellow physicists Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and others were finding. The so-called Copenhagen interpretation of their observations – which remains the basis of quantum physics today – didn’t ring true. The effects were clear enough (in fact, today we’ve built computers that exploit them), but the explanation wasn’t right.

Einstein’s answer was that he and his colleagues hadn’t yet found everything. And for my money, if Einstein figured there was something yet to discover – well, the onus is on to look for it.

The problem is that, since then, we haven’t found that missing element. All kinds of efforts have been made to reconcile quantum physics – which operates on micro-scales, below a Planck length – with the deterministic macro-universe that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity described.

None have been compelling, not least because while the math works out for some ideas – like string theory – there has been absolutely no proof that these answers really exist. And while it’s tempting to be drawn by the way the language we’re using (maths) works, we do need to know it’s describing something real.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Of late, though, there have been proposals that Einstein was quite right. There WAS something missing. Not only that, but the Large Hadron Collider has a good chance of finding it soon, as it’s ramped up to max power.

Here’s how it works. We live in a four-dimensional universe (movement up-down, left-right, forward-back and time). It’s possible other dimensions and universes exist – this is a postulate of string theory. Another idea is that gravity ‘leaks’ between these universes. And this is where the LHC comes in. Currently, in its souped-up new form, the LHC can generate enough energy to produce a micro-sized black hole.

Exactly what this would mean, though, is up for debate. The results could point to some very different models of the universe than the one we’ve been wrestling with since the 1940s.

It could mean that string theory is correct – and provide the first proof of it.

Or, if the black hole is formed while the LHC is running at specified energies, it could mean that ‘rainbow gravity’ is correct. This is a controversial hypothesis – built from Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity – in which the curvature of space-time (caused by the presence of mass) is also affected by the act of observing it. This implies that gravity (which is a function of that curvature) affects particles of different energies, differently. Basically, the wavelength of light (red) is affected differently than a higher (blue). We can’t detect the variance in normal Earth environments, but it should be detectable around a black hole. And if it’s true then – by implication – the Big Bang never happened, because the Big Bang is a function of the way gravity behaves in General Relativity. It also makes a lot of the paradoxes and mysteries associated with bleeding-edge physics go away, because according to rainbow gravity, space-time does not exist below a certain (Planck level) scale.

Another possibility is that the ability of the LHC to make black holes could mean that a ‘parallel universe’ theory is right, and the Copenhagen intepretation isn’t the right explanation for the ‘quantum’ effects we’re seeing. This last is yet another explanation for quantum effects. By this argument what we’re seeing is not weirdness at all, but merely ‘jittering’ at very small scales where multiple universes overlap. These are not the ‘multiple universes’ that Hugh Everett theorised to follow quantum wave function collapse. They are normal Einsteinian universes, where particles are behaving in a perfectly ordinary manner. The math, again, can be made to work out – and actually was, last year, at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

It also suggests that our friend Albert was right …again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015