SAN FRANCISCO - Would you mind getting your hands dirty as you figure out a way to reverse engineer a chicken into a dinosaur?
If you’re an unemployed, evolutionary biologist looking for a post-doc gig, this may be the perfect job for you. Paleontologist Jack Horner is looking for someone who isn’t afraid to think - and who would help figure out how to build a dinosaur from a chicken.
There’s a few things to keep in mind though. You’d have to move to Montana to join Horner in his lab at Montana State University to try to make Jurassic Park a reality. And, you’ll have to defend the project a lot, as many people say this isn’t possible.
At the Wired office in San Francisco on Monday, Horner told the crowded room that when people ask what happened to dinosaurs, he says, “nothing.” Think about it. Chickens are related to dinosaurs. Birds are living dinosaurs. It’s the non-avian dinos who went extinct. Avian dinosaurs are just modern birds, he explains.
In the October issue of Wired, the cover story on reverse engineering a chicken into a dinosaur reveals Horner’s strong character: “People have told Jack Horner he’s crazy before, but he has always turned out to be right.”
He’s not afraid to put radical ideas out there. A few years ago, he wrote about how he’d like to create a dinosaur out of a chicken embryo by genetically modifying some genes - it was only a matter of time, that his idea would be be put to the test. Could he hatch a baby dinosaur in his lab?
Ironically, the main character in Jurassic Park was inspired by Horner’s life as a paleontologist. But instead of going for the technique used in the movie, Horner is placing his bets on reverse engineering a chicken.
By tweaking ancestral characteristics, Horner may be able to turn a chicken into a creature that looks more like the dinosaurs that you’d see in Terra Nova rather than the meat on your dinner plate.
In order to turn a chicken into a dinosaur, you’d have to give the chicken some teeth, a tail, and let the hand develop into three digits. The goal is to find the genes that stop these appendages from developing while in the embryo.
While Horner was in town for his Wired magazine appearance, I caught up with him to find out what working on the TV show Terra Nova with Stephen Spielberg is like and why he’s actively searching for a post-doc to build a dino chicken.
What would you call a chickenosaurus?
Or Chick Rex?
It’s a good way to teach kids about evolutionary biology and developmental biology, Horner says.
For more, check out Horner’s talk on TED:
Note: I actually got to go dinosaur digging with Jack Horner and we found a dinosaur! Read about it here.