His vi­sion of Juras­sic world

Can we ge­net­i­cally engi­neer a chicken into a di­nosaur? Jack Horner thinks so.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SASHA HARRIS-LOVETT sasha.harris-lovett@latimes.com Twit­ter: @sasha_hl

Jack Horner says he’s shaped his life around two child­hood dreams: to be a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist and to have a pet di­nosaur.

His first dream has al­ready come true. He found his first di­nosaur bone at age 8, near his home in Mon­tana. In the six decades since, he has un­earthed re­mains from tens of thou­sands of di­nosaurs — in­clud­ing never-be­fore-seen fos­sils of em­bry­onic di­nosaurs still in­side eggs. These finds led to his ground­break­ing dis­cov­er­ies that some di­nosaurs built nests, lived in colonies and cared for their young. He is now a pro­fes­sor of pa­le­on­tol­ogy at Mon­tana State Univer­sity and was a con­sul­tant on the “Juras­sic Park” movies.

Now Horner is ready to re­al­ize his sec­ond dream — the pet di­nosaur.

His plan is to ma­nip­u­late the DNA of a chicken so that it will ex­press some of its la­tent di­nosaur-like traits. Since birds are the evo­lu­tion­ary de­scen­dants of di­nosaurs, Horner be­lieves they have dor­mant DNA that, if ac­ti­vated, could po­ten­tially cause them to de­velop some of the traits di­nosaurs had, such as teeth, three-fin­gered hands and tails. And voila: a dinochicken.

Horner re­cently vis­ited the Nat­u­ral History Mu­seum of Los An­ge­les County and had this to say about di­nosaurs, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and what Hol­ly­wood gets wrong: How re­al­is­tic are the di­nosaurs in the “Juras­sic Park” movies?

Di­nosaurs are not that scary. They’re not go­ing to tear holes in your ve­hi­cles or rip holes in your build­ings. All ev­i­dence points to them be­ing much more bird-like than we por­tray them. So they didn’t roar?

I don’t think they roared at all. Roar­ing is a char­ac­ter­is­tic of mam­mals. Even al­li­ga­tors and crocodiles don’t roar. They grunt a lit­tle bit, but they don’t roar like mam­mals do. How did you get in­ter­ested in di­nosaurs in the first place?

I was born this way. I do not re­mem­ber any time in my en­tire life when I wasn’t in­ter­ested in find­ing fos­sils. I’d find them, and I’d bring them home and cat­a­log them care­fully. I was a nerdy lit­tle sci­en­tist at the ear­li­est ages. What do you like about fos­sils?

I like touch­ing them, feel­ing them and study­ing them. As a kid I would go to the li­brary and look at all of the books that had pic­tures of fos­sils in them. I’d do the best I could to iden­tify them. I still do that. What can you learn about di­nosaurs from their bones?

We cut into the bone and look in­side at the struc­ture. You can see how the bone forms, and you can look at its growth over time. It gives us a lot of in­for­ma­tion about the phys­i­ol­ogy of the an­i­mal — the growth rate, how long it lived, how old it was when it died. We even think that it tells us about the size of its genome. There’s just all sorts of in­for­ma­tion in­side the bone. How did you come up with the idea to cre­ate a dinochicken?

For me, cre­at­ing a di­nosaur is the big­gest pro­ject we have. I know we can do it. It’s like the moon pro­ject. We know we can do it — it just takes time and money. And we will get it done. We will make a dino-chick­en­like an­i­mal pretty soon. We’re mov­ing along pretty quickly. Why do you want to do that?

For lots of rea­sons. First off, there are so many ar­gu­ments about evo­lu­tion, and this is proof of con­cept. The chicken-o-saurus would pro­vide proof of an­ces­tral evo­lu­tion [of birds from di­nosaurs]. We’re go­ing to make a dino-chicken with­out adding any­thing to the chicken.

But it’s also about mak­ing new kinds of an­i­mals. New kinds of an­i­mals? How?

We do ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing all the time through breed­ing. You start with a wolf and you end up with a Chi­huahua. That’s ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing. Peo­ple just don’t re­al­ize it.

What we’re do­ing now is fig­ur­ing out a way to do it quicker, so we don’t have to wait hun­dreds or thou­sands of years to get a Chi­huahua. We’ll just be able to do it in one shot. And we can mix and match dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics.

As ab­surd and wild as it sounds, I hon­estly be­lieve that even be­fore we make a dino-chicken, we could make a uni­corn. Re­ally?

Yeah! And would you want to?

Well, why not? Wouldn’t it be fun to have a uni­corn? I mean, just think of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of mak­ing myth­i­cal crea­tures — mix­ing and match­ing dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics. I mean, it just sounds fun to me! If a Chi­huahua is fun, then a uni­corn has to be fun. Are there eth­i­cal is­sues that need to be con­sid­ered be­fore mak­ing some­thing like a dino-chicken?

We’d need more chicken feed. How have other sci­en­tists re­sponded to the idea of cre­at­ing di­nosaurs or myth­i­cal crea­tures?

Most sci­en­tists who have spo­ken up about it are ex­cited. I have a num­ber of them work­ing with me on the pro­ject. I know there are some peo­ple out there who pooh-pooh it as poor science. But who gets to eval­u­ate what’s good science or bad science?

I don’t think there should be lim­its on science. Some­one asked me re­cently, “Where do you draw the line?” What line? And why should we draw one? Should some­body have drawn the line be­fore they made the Chi­huahua? I don’t know. Could we use ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing to bring back other ex­tinct species, like Ne­an­derthals?

I don’t care whether we bring back more peo­ple. I want a di­nosaur.

This in­ter­view was edited for length and clar­ity.

Kevin Win­ter Getty Im­ages

JACK HORNER be­lieves that dor­mant DNA could be ac­ti­vated to de­velop di­nosaur traits in chick­ens.

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