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.