In the new Jurassic World, the genetic engineering of the early 90s takes a leap into the 21st century—there are not just the clones of the fearsome Velociraptor and gentle Diplodocus roaming the park grounds now, there is a genetically engineered super hybrid dinosaur out to wreck havoc. Could such a thing be created in real life? Can paleontologists create a super-dinosaur that takes on the most dangerous and terrifying characteristics of each one of its components?
No way. While scientists are researching how to manipulate genetic material to learn more about dinosaurs, DNA degrades too rapidly for us to ever have enough of a dinosaur genome to sequence directly. Some of the genetic work to be done may include altering birds’ existing genetic code in the laboratory to potentially bring out more of their prehistoric characteristics.
Work in this area is already progressing—last month a group of researchers from Yale University published a paper in the journal of Evolution indicating they had altered a chicken’s genome in such a way that they were able to transform the typical bird beak into a snout that closely resembled that of its non-avian dinosaur ancestors. In this case, scientists are not adding to the genome in any way, but essentially unlocking the dormant, silent DNA that remains leftover from the non-avian ancestry of the chicken.
In another recent study in Scientific Reports, researchers were able to make chicken perching digits superficially similar to that of a non-avian dinosaur with embryo modification. The perching digit, called the hallux, was non-opposable in dinosaurs and could not move around in the same manner a modern bird’s can. The origin of the modern bird hallux could be intimately tied with the transition of birds from non-avian to capable of flight.
Understanding the genetic differences that lead to physical differences between birds and dinosaurs is allowing “reverse genetic engineering” to occur on a small scale in the lab. Despite what the movies will have you believe, there is no way we can get a full genome from an extinct non-avian dinosaur by tapping into preserved mosquito blood. A new purebred T. rex will never be created in the laboratory.
The conversation of cloning is a lot more serious when paleontologists and geneticists discuss more recently extinct animals like woolly mammoths—in that case, due to the finds of well-preserved mammoth mummies—the proper genetic blueprint could actually exist to make this idea more realistic than cloning a dinosaur. In 2011 a team in Japan claimed they are going to be producing a woolly mammoth “clone” using extracted genetic material and a modern elephant to carry the clone to term. Researchers at Harvard have recently announced they have made progress doing the same thing.
If (and that is a big if) this creature is ever created, or made “de-extintct,” it will have a good home in Pleistocene Park. Pleistocene Park, as close to a “real life” prehistoric park as can exist, was created in Russia to recreate the entire tundra ecosystem present in that region during the last ice age. So instead of a visit to Jurassic Park, Pleistocene Park will have to do.
Originally posted on forbes.com/science