Live dinosaurs on the way, Montreal researcher says
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Monday, August 24, 2009 7:28PM EDT
A paleontologist in Montreal plans to manipulate chicken embryos to give them dinosaur features, a first step towards hatching live prehistoric animals.
Hans Larsson told CTV's Canada AM the first chicken embryo with a range of dinosaur traits could be made within five years. However, that depends on the project receiving adequate funding, said Larsson, a 38-year-old professor at McGill University.
By flipping certain genetic levers at the appropriate point in a chicken embryo's development, Larsson believes he can instill features that disappeared from birds millions of years ago.
"We should be able to regenerate or essentially make the genetic program mimic the way it was at say, 150 million years ago, and grow a longer tail, change its plumage to something a little bit more primitive, have three-clawed fingers, some teeth," he said.
The idea for the project came about over a discussion with internationally renowned American paleontologist Jack Horner. Among other things, Horner served as technical adviser for the Jurassic Park films.
The two were talking about how to illustrate evolution. They decided that altering the development of chicken embryos could be "a very public, visual way of doing that," Larsson said.
"The fundamental questions are animal development. We're trying to find out what genes are turning on and off, how cells are moving within the embryo."
The study will focus on chicken eggs because birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs, Larsson said.
The project doesn't face ethical hurdles because none of the embryos would be hatched yet, Larsson said. The research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs program and National Geographic.
Larsson credits Horner for coming up with the idea. Horner recently wrote a book, "How to Build A Dinosaur," in which he refers to the embryo experiment as a quest to create a "chickenosaurus."
The prehistoric creature will be "small, but bigger than a chicken," Horner writes in the book. Eventually, he envisions that researchers could produce prehistoric-looking animals the size of an emu.
"Everything we work with on chickens has a direct application to human developmental biology as well," Larsson said, because the genetic development of humans is similar to that of chickens.
"The idea is to see if we can really look at fundamental, developmental biology and really try and understand that in modern birds."
Larsson's previous research has dealt with issues such as prehistoric climate change in the Arctic.