What we’re trying to do is reverse the evolutionary process and get an embryonic chick to develop into a dinosaur instead.
Two hundred years ago, in 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel that showed what might happen if human pride and ambition overreached themselves in a bid to emulate God.
At the time, scientists had just discovered that they could make a dead frog twitch by delivering jolts of electricity to the corpse. There were theories that a divine, life-giving force might have been discovered.
Shelley created a terrifying scenario in which a scientist applied that force and then refused to take responsibility for the creature that was created.
Genes in insects
One hundred and seventy-five years later, in 1993, the film Jurassic Park showed resurrected dinosaurs running amok because scientists had let their enthusiasm and curiosity get the better of them. Once again, the moral of the story was that revolutionary knowledge and godlike powers can cost us dearly.
Moving forward to present day, we are on the threshold of being able to recreate lost creatures, reconstruct wild species, and even create entirely new forms of life that would never have come into being unaided. What do we do with that knowledge? Is it a good idea to resurrect lost animal species?
Because of Jurassic Park, everyone thinks they know how to go about bringing dinosaurs back to life.
In the film, the scientists take a fine piece of amber containing a perfectly preserved mosquito, drill a tiny hole, and extract the blood that formed the bloated mosquito’s last meal. They manage to extract the dinosaur’s genetic material from the dregs of blood and sequence its genome — and then all they have to do is set about producing a dinosaur egg.
Real-life researchers have, in fact, tried to do that very thing, searching for genes in insects that are astonishingly well preserved in amber. The problem is this: scientists can’t find any dinosaur DNA in mosquitoes.
Given the DNA molecule’s fragility, the oldest creature from which scientists have extracted fragments of sequenceable genetic material is 700,000 years old. That is quite remarkable, considering how new the technique is. Still, it remains a far cry from the 65 million years that a dinosaur genome would have had to survive to be analysed.
However, that doesn’t mean that the dream of being able to see a dinosaur one day is dead. There really are scientists who are working to achieve just that, though not in the way you might imagine.
Jack Horner found his first dinosaur bones at the age of eight and decided to become a palaeontologist. He dug up his first sizeable dinosaur aged 13 and has continued to make spectacular finds ever since.
His discoveries have played a decisive role in giving scientists the understanding of dinosaurs they have today. For instance, Jack was the first to discover that these creatures built nests to lay their eggs in, nurtured their young, and lived in herds — a far cry from earlier views of dinosaurs as clumsy, primitive dimwits.
Jack was the model for Dr Grant in the Jurassic Park films and acted as a scientific adviser on the series. His link with Hollywood goes even further: producer George Lucas is now funding his dinosaur resurrection project.
Jack’s ambition is ‘to build a dinosaur’. Since it’s impossible to investigate the genetic make-up of the dinosaurs because of the lack of DNA, he has had to find another way. His plan is to take a chicken as the starting-point and to try to coax forth its inner saurian.
Biologically speaking, birds are dinosaurs. Not only are they descended from them, they actually constitute a group within the dinosaurs’ family tree, just as lions belong to the feline family and rats to the family of rodents. It’s just that all the other branches of the tree have withered away.
There are four things that distinguish birds from other types of dinosaurs. Chickens have wings rather than arms and hands, and a beak instead of a snout. They are toothless and have a short, compact rump instead of the long tail characteristic of a dinosaur.
Everything else, from their feathers to the wishbone people squabble over after a roast-chicken dinner, are features they share with dinosaurs, Jack tells me. The group of dinosaurs Jack thinks that modern birds share the most characteristics with are therapods, the group from which birds evolved. Therapods included species such as tyrannosaurs, velociraptors, and other two-legged dinosaurs with long, narrow heads and long tails.
‘What we’re trying to do is reverse the evolutionary process and get an embryonic chick to develop into a dinosaur instead.’
It may be possible to transform a chicken into a miniature dinosaur by choosing to remove certain genes and simply replacing them by others.
His team plans to take chicken embryos as a starting point and steer the development of the foetus, controlling the genes that are active while the embryonic chick is developing inside the egg. In this way, they aim to reverse 150 million years of evolution and produce a more archaic creature.
I ask Jack what it would take for him to feel he had completed his project. ‘It would be when we can take a chicken — or any kind of bird, really — and activate genes so they produce teeth, change its mouth, give it a long tail, and alter its arms and hands.
So in practice that would mean hatching a creature with a head like a dinosaur, with teeth in its mouth, arms and hands, and a long tail. It would look just like a miniature modern-day therapod.’
If he managed this, the animal would still be feathered, just like many dinosaurs, and it would be no bigger than a chicken.
Jack’s boundless optimism is infectious. It’s clear he’s going to enjoy himself tremendously, no matter whether he succeeds or not. I hope he will, though I have enormous doubts.
There is no way in which a lost species can really be brought back to life. The nearest thing we can manage is a substitute. When I ask my non-scientist friends why they think anyone would want to resurrect dinosaurs, the reply is mostly: ‘Because they can!’
Few of the scientists working in the field draw attention to this aspect, but I think it’s significant. These projects are driven by curiosity, passion, and the desire to achieve the impossible. These are wonderful wellsprings of motivation, but they also hark back to the hubris of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are we just playing at being God?
When I began writing about humanity’s attempts to revive species, I thought my book would focus on nostalgia and the yearning for a vanished world.
I discovered that it has more to do with the future, with the present, in which we humans have made ourselves nature’s masters — and with scientists’ unbridled desire to discover the new.
Torill Kornfeldt is a Swedish science journalist and author of The Re-Origin of Species. This extract was translated by Hannah Graham.