Jurassic Park is fiction, someone tell Jack Horner

Jack Horner has an ambitious goal. He wants to reverse-engineer birds to recreate dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs could potentially walk among us in real life soon as the paleontologist who inspired the original Jurassic Park movie has announced a research project to bring the extinct creatures back to life. Dr. Jack Horner says scientists are only 5 to 10 years away from genetically engineering dinosaurs into existence.

Yeah, I know. He’s been puttering about with this for years, using every incremental change in bird genetics engineered in a lab as confirmation of his project’s feasibility. It’s interesting developmental biology. It’s not going to get him to his goal.

Horner cited a 2015 study as his “proof of concept,” noting that scientists at Harvard and Yale were able to trick a bird’s head into changing into a dinosaur snout.

“Basically what we do is we go into an embryo that’s just beginning to form, and use some genetic markers to sort of identify when certain genes turn on and when they turn off,” he said.. “And by determining when certain genes turn on, we can sort of figure out how a tail begins to develop. And we want to fix that gene so it doesn t stop the tail from growing.”

And there’s the problem: “that gene”. There isn’t a “that gene” — there is a whole ensemble of interacting genes that work together, and it’s simply not going to be doable in 5-10 years. There will be small changes in the desired direction, but every one of those new changes will have a ripple effect on a dozen or more other genes, and each of them will have to be tweaked to adjust their response, but then each of those will have downstream effects on a dozen other genes.

It’s not impossible, since evolution obviously shaped every species, but evolution is a massive project in parallel processing, with large population numbers and thousands of generations. We don’t know enough to be able to go in and in one grand experiment change all the relevant genes in exactly the right way, with foreknowledge of their interactions, to do what he wants in such a short time.

Also, evolution had an easier job in one sense: it doesn’t work towards a specific goal, but simply takes whatever it gets and accepts it if it survives. There was no intent to take a dinosaur species 150+ million years ago and sculpt it into a chicken, specifically. He’s not going to get a dinosaur — he’s going to get a weird-ass mutant chicken — and it’s going to take a lot more time, effort, and money than he naively expects.


  1. timothyeisele says

    Not that there’s anything wrong with weird-ass mutant chickens. My daughter has some. They look like Shmoos.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Didn’t they do something similar to reverse horses back to a species long extinct, the equine originator species returned through carefully breeding ones who still had abandoned genes active?
    Why not expand to birds? Birds were first from which dinosaurs evolved so let’s repeat it.
    Excuse confabulation of so many misconceptions and debunked

  3. call me mark says

    Taking the “Jurassic Park” metaphor and running, did Horner not notice that the dinosaurs in that book/movie kill a whole bunch of people?

    A real-life Tyrannosaur might be cool on the Silver Screen, but I’d rather not be etten by one ta.

  4. blf says

    Wait, what, I thought he’d already accomplished this some years ago — or is Big Bird just a prototype ?

  5. cartomancer says

    Is it a naive question to ask why anyone would even want to do this? What pressing social need will dinosaurs fill?

  6. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Jurassic Park is the obvious analog, but there’s a far greater danger in his experiments: he could well engineer a real-life Barney.

  7. says

    We should take this in reasonable steps. Passenger pigeons first, dodos after that, and then we can maybe try for the crazy stuff that’ll get us all killed.

  8. Larry says

    “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!”

    — Ian Malcolm

  9. kestrel says

    I can see that this project would be really difficult and close to impossible so I do understand I would never see this animal IRL. I must admit though… since I raise chickens, and constantly have to worry about predators such as raccoons killing them, it would be nice to have a chicken that killed the raccoons instead.

  10. jack16 says

    Eventually this “reconstruction” will be enabled by a path of deduction. But how long??? Try thirty years?

    @Kip T.W. I’d love to see a dodo!!


  11. Larry says

    it would be nice to have a chicken that killed the raccoons instead.

    Farmer’s wife: Honey, would you go out to the chicken coop and get a chicken for dinner
    Farmer: <looking out the window into the coop where a bloody raptor chicken is shredding the carcass of a raccoon with long, nasty, pointed teeth> Umm, how about we get a pizza instead.

  12. rq says


    How about if we reverse-engineer lobsters to recreate Jordan Peterson?

    I think the one’s enough, thanks. I’d rather the T.Rex.

  13. chrislawson says

    slithey tove@4–

    I presume you’re talking about the reintroduction of the takhi/Przewalski’s horse to the Mongolian steppes. There’s a really good article about it here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/remarkable-comeback-przewalski-horse-180961142/

    A couple of points of difference between this story and Jurassic Park/Jack Horner-style species resurrections:

    1. The takhi went extinct in the wild in 1969, c.f. dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

    2. The takhi was only extinct in the wild; there were enough in zoos to build a managed breeding population which eventually led to their reintroduction in Mongolian national parks.

    3. A lot of reproductive technology and specialist knowledge was involved, but no genetic engineering.

    4. There are other programs that use selective breeding to recreate the superficial appearance of extinct animals like the aurochs, the Konik horse, and various wolves. These will not be true species resurrections, but breeding to make existing animals look more like extinct species. (We may note that all of these programs are for large mammals of high symbolic value to the people of their region; nobody’s enthused for the many rodent species that have gone extinct in the last 500 years — although I’m keen to bring back the Indefatigable Galapagos Mouse for its name alone.)

    5. Reverse engineering dinosaurs from birds is a task several orders of magnitude more difficult. All of the examples above use animals very closely related to the extinct species, e.g. cattle for aurochs. But dinosaurs and birds are entirely different classes, with numerous structural anatomical differences and an unknown (because they don’t fossilise well) number of soft tissue and physiological differences.

  14. OptimalCynic says

    chrislawson: He may be referring to the quagga (to which all of your points apply just as well, of course).

  15. Dunc says

    What use is an animal without the ecosystem is was a part of? Are we also going to resurrect the dung beetles associated with these dinosaurs? Are we going to recreate the biomes they lived in? How about the microbiomes that lived in them?

  16. davidc1 says

    Isn’t Jack Horner the guy wot sat in the corner eating his xmas pie?
    Anyway i think he has been watching too much Red Dwarf .

  17. says

    garnetstar: How about if we reverse-engineer lobsters to recreate Jordan Peterson?

    What, like we reverse-engineered mobsters to create Donald Trump?

  18. Ed Seedhouse says

    Dunc @20: “What use is an animal without the ecosystem is was a part of? Are we also going to resurrect the dung beetles associated with these dinosaurs? Are we going to recreate the biomes they lived in? How about the microbiomes that lived in them?”

    Exactly. Organisms don’t exist on their own, they exist in a particular world that they are fit to survive in. When the world changes new organisms evolve. And the world did change and the dinosaurs did evolve, into a new form we call “birds”.

  19. jack16 says

    @William Webb
    Oops! Did you mean jack16? I spend happy time watching the dinosaurs around my house.


  20. brett says

    I can’t see him getting more than a modified chicken with a toothy snout and maybe a tail. That would probably look like a small theropod dinosaur in many ways (especially since so many of the smaller ones were feathered), but that’s about it.

    Ironically enough, I remember that being a thing in the original Jurassic Park novel. The chief geneticist Harry Wu tries to tell John Hammond that the dinosaurs they have in the park aren’t really “real” either – they’re reconstructions that plausibly seem to resemble and behave like ancient dinosaurs.

    @20 Dunc

    That reminds me of PZ’s post a few years back about how we should resurrect the big ground sloths. They actually would fill an ecological niche that is empty right now.

  21. petesh says

    @26: 5–10 years sounds like a long time but it’s close enough that you (yes, you) might see the result.

  22. anchor says

    Horner evidently suffers from an untreatable case of linear thinking. Genomes from living individuals can’t be unscrambled in ‘reverse engineering’ fashion to produce an individual with the traits of a particular ancestor. There are myriads along the line. He might conceivably even summon up a ‘dino’-monstrosity with gills, for example, but the product will never be anything that was ever alive in the past. Moreover there will be whole chunks of routines that have since changed drastically, been added or gone entirely missing. Tweaking this or that gene to shoot for a particular ancestral genome form is nuts.

    @#10 – But the movie also had him declare, “[Dinosaurs] had their chance and nature selected them for extinction.” Which only goes to show that Spielberg and/or his writers (along with a large proportion of audiences who nodded knowingly to that idiotic statement) don’t understand beans about the basics of evolution and natural selection. Theirs is a cartoon understanding that likens nature to a godly authority who sternly controls what gets to live or die…and ‘chance’ (ironically, considering its appearance in the quote) has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  23. microraptor says

    brett @25:

    I can’t see him getting more than a modified chicken with a toothy snout and maybe a tail. That would probably look like a small theropod dinosaur in many ways (especially since so many of the smaller ones were feathered), but that’s about it.

    It would be a small theropod dinosaur. It just wouldn’t be a non-avian theropod dinosaur. And even if the results were tweaked until it looked like a feather-covered sauropod, it would still be an avian theropod.

  24. unclefrogy says

    evolution had an easier job in one sense: it doesn’t work towards a specific goal, but simply takes whatever it gets and accepts it if it survives.

    that is something that people usually do not really understand and the basic idea is true for all of nature. There is no direction implied only “forward in time”.
    The knowledge gained in the effort would be significant. I would add to that list of long dead species mammoths as one that would be nice to “resurrect”. If you could do it where would you put them? what would you do with them?
    I seem to remember some si-fi book I read that had the side issue of people having exotic pets that were made by bio-engendering. That suggests to me that were all of that lead is to the expansion of the exotic pet market.

  25. says

    Think of the questions that arose when President Kennedy said we should land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth…” Are you crazy? Do you know how far away that is? We don’t have the materials or technology to do that! What will they eat? How will they survive in the hostile environment of outer space that long? We have never communicated over such a long distance! etc.” And yet, we did it in under ten years.

    The march of technology and scientific understanding is done painstakingly in small steps that seem like crawling most of the time. Every discovery and insight is largely derived from those who went before. 5-15 years? Maybe so, maybe no. But it will happen.

    I gained that understanding from a certain biologist who de-bunks charlatans and simpletons and bloviators.

  26. JustaTech says

    tigerprawn @31: Not to downplay the huge amount of work the Apollo program was, but that was an *engineering* problem. The math had been around for centuries. The rockets had been around (mostly working) for 20 years. The science said “this is totally possible”.

    Making dinosaurs? That’s new science, where there are surpassingly few straight paths for all our tiny steps.

    (And let’s all be honest, what we really want are tiny pet dragons. But dragons are imaginary, so we make do with dinosaurs. So get a cockatoo and name it “Dinosaur”.)

  27. chigau (違う) says

    brett #25
    …That reminds me of PZ’s post a few years back…
    The author of that post was Chris Clarke.
    (Do I get a bunny?)

  28. brett says

    @33 Chigau

    Oops, my bad.

    @32 JustaTech

    Hell, the Apollo Program target of landing a man on the Moon was specifically picked because they believed it was something that would be feasible to do within a decade in terms of engineering. Plans for a moon mission had been around for years by that point.

  29. chrislawson says


    I have no doubt at all that some time in the future we will create organisms that are very similar in appearance to the popular dinosaurs (you know the usuals: T. rex, triceratops, brachiosaurus, velociraptors — nobody cares about panoplosaurus, poor thing). But (1) this is a lot more than 5-10 years away, and (2) they won’t be real dinosaurs in the sense of having a similar genome to the originals. If they are derived from birds (as I expect they will), then they will by taxonomic definition be genuine theropods but that’s not the same thing as being a genuine T. rex or a stegosaur.

    The other point about achievability — everything that the Apollo missions had to achieve was known to be technically possible, albeit very difficult, since the Mercury program and the Soviet space launches — has already been made. The Gemini program was so overengineered that its chief designer was sure he could fly orbits around and then land on the the moon with his existing technology earlier and cheaper than the then-proposed Apollo program.

  30. alkisvonidas says

    I’m surprised no-one suggests we simply breed dinosaur-like animals out of chickens. After all, we created chickens via selective breeding out of their wild avian ancestors, didn’t we?

    Instead of trying to reverse-engineer natural selection, why not go with plain old artificial selection? We won’t get actual dinosaurs, of course, but neither would we through genetic engineering, since we can’t know the exact path of mutations. But we have a pretty good idea what our new breeds should look like.

    (Also, let’s make them featherless. Pretty please?)

  31. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    Dinosaurs could potentially walk among us in real life soon as the…

    Uh, why do we want a dinosaur walking among us again? I mean, the reasoning behind that is not self evident.

    Sure, I can see how that would be a wet dream for any paleontologist. Which is why I can’t get past the thought that this all sounds like some weird convoluted dream where some noted paleontologists get to make the rounds on late night TV shows role playing as Dr Alan Grant.

  32. microraptor says

    alkisvonidas @36:

    Actually the suggestion of breeding chickens or emus until you had a dinobird with teeth and a long, bony tail has been around since Jurassic Park first came out. It’s just not as sexy as “cloning a real dinosaur via genetic manipulation” is, so it doesn’t get a much attention.

  33. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Re 18
    Thank you for adding all the details I was to lazy to include. You know I was simply joshing around by deliberately failing to include all those details you kindly provided.
    I was making fun of how ridiculous I think the Horner proposal is to begin with.

  34. blf says

    what we really want are tiny pet dragons.

    What do you mean tiny ? I’d like my dragon accomplice to be able to fly me to their havens on the outer planets. I presume that means big, as in BIG, although I grant there are other possibilities. (E.g., a TARDIS named “dragon” would be a quite acceptable alternative.)

    breeding chickens or emus until you had a dinobird with teeth and a long, bony tail

    There’s always the mildly deranged penguin, who has a set of teeth very effective on cheese. And can scare away horses. Her tails aren’t particularly long, or bony, or (much to her disappointment) prehensile, but they rarely are on tuxedos. She certainly knows about other dinosaurs, and speaks of baby T. rex‘s frolicking in the meadows near the cheese plantations when she was growing up.

  35. nomdeplume says

    This is obviously a silly idea. as everyone has pointed out. But even more technologically possible suggestions – eg recreating the Thylacine or the Mammoth from DNA in museum specimens or frozen fossils – are misguided because a naked mammalian organism, removed from all its ecological context, all its parasites, all its behavioural/social interactions, all its original food species, is not the original species but something new. The possibility of doing this with birds (Dodo, Passenger Pigeon) is much more realistic because so much bird behaviour is genetically programmed (hence the success of incubating eggs artificially) and even more so with reptiles etc. But in all those cases the original context has slso gone – you would be in effect doing the same thing as introducing domesticated species into the wild.

  36. says

    Look, can we get this clown and drag him over to North Queensland and introduce him, up close and personal-like, to a cassowary? I mean, this is the nearest thing we have living to yer actual theropod dinosaurs, right down to the cranky and downright lethal attitude toward small squishy mammals (ie “all of them”, from its perspective). Then we can drag him around a few of the joys of trying to preserve such a species in the wild, especially with humans cluttering up the area where it lives.

    Then, once he’s recovered from being kicked by the blasted cassowary, he can carry on with his project, if he wants to.

    Oh, and some appropriately-themed reading for everyone:

    A Bird In Hand, by Charles Stross

  37. David Marjanović says

    (Also, let’s make them featherless. Pretty please?)

    Fuck that shit. If you want a lizard, have a lizard – there are pretty impressive ones out there.

  38. Ichthyic says

    <blockquoteThen, once he’s recovered from being kicked by the blasted cassowary

    well, there is the possibility he ends up eviscerated.

    which I suppose would be a lesson in itself.