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MARTHA SEZ: ‘It is possible, right now ... to make a glow-in-the-dark unicorn’

April 5, 2019
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

When my daughter Molly was little and living on Grape Street in Boulder, Colorado, she had a number of pets, including some dogs and rabbits and a duck.

She also had a chicken. We were sitting out in the sun in the back yard one day when I happened to notice the way the chicken moved. It was strutting around, the way chickens do, and I thought, I'll bet that's how T. rex walked. Eureka! It just came to me, like a thunderbolt. Science by inspiration: It's a gift.

Jack Horner, Famous paleontologist, spent 34 years as curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, and is now at the University of Washington's new Burke Museum. He may well have intuited the theropod/poultry connection while feeding his chickens at around the same time I had my revelation, who knows?

However he formed his hypothesis, Horner went on to popularize his theory that birds are, in fact, dinosaurs, and he has made a career of it.

Since those days, there have been many advances in the field of genetics. Genetically modifying organisms, from soybeans to Neanderthals, is now the subject of much heated debate. I recently read a quote from a geneticist stating that the complete DNA sequence of a Neanderthal's genome is obtainable, and therefore Neanderthals can theoretically be brought back into production, as it were. However, since we are apparently unable to tolerate even other homo sapiens slightly different from ourselves, many people consider this a bad idea.

"It's bound to cause trouble," is the general consensus.

Getting back to chickens: For years now, Jack Horner has been wanting to create his own chicken-based dinosaur. In 2009, Horner and "New York Times" science writer James Gorman published their coauthored book, "How To Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever."

According to Horner, "Of course, birds are dinosaurs, so we just need to fix them so they look a little more like a dinosaur. ... 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."

In 2011, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas funded Horner's dino research.

In 2015, scientists Bhart-Anjan Bhullar of Yale University and Arkhat Abzhanov of Harvard University interfered genetically with the beaks of embryonic chicks. Some chicks remained almost the same, while others developed jaws resembling those of Archaeopteryx and Velociraptor. An unexpected result was that the palates of these chicks also became more like those of their extinct nonavian forebears. The chicks were not allowed to hatch.

The scientific term for this process, I gather, is "genetic tweak." Bhullar and Abzhanov tweaked the beaks of the chicks and turned them to freaks. This tweak took seven years and some heavy funding. (Scientific inspiration like mine saves time and money, but then again it doesn't deliver that credibility scientists crave. How do you know? People will ask me, and I tell them, I just know. I'm right, too, a lot of the time.) Bhullar and Abzhanov are interested in learning about evolution, and so is Horner, but, as I mentioned, Horner really wants that dino-chicken. In June, 2018, Horner said that scientists are about five years away from being able to manipulate a chicken embryo's DNA to bring back its atavistic dinosaur traits. The tail, I've read, is the last hurdle. Once they figure out how to give the chicken a nonavian dino tail, they'll be home free.

OK, Stop it, you guys. Bringing back dinosaurs is not a good idea. Hasn't everybody seen "Jurassic Park?"

Horner actually worked on all three Jurassic Park films in order to make them more realistic.

He has stated that animals have traditionally been genetically changed by breeding, "And the question is, why would anyone care (about a dino-chicken) if they don't care about a chihuahua?"

It is possible, right now, he has claimed, to make a glow-in-the-dark unicorn. He'd better not let little girls get wind of that. He would never draw another peaceful breath.

"Any of us that have any curiosity about how we all got here and where everything came from has to be interested in evolutionary biology," Horner said. "It's basically the blueprint of life on this Earth."

Yes, but I repeat: What he really wants is to make a dino-chicken of his own.

I wonder what dino-chicken tastes like?

Have a good week.



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