Dino-chicken. Chickosaurus. Squawkasaurus Rex. None of these sound quite as terrifying as the reptilian star in "Jurassic World," which set box-office records when it opened this past weekend. Dubbed Indominous rex, the behemoth is a fictitious chicken-based dinosaur that was created in a lab — an idea that is not so far-fetched, says a famed dinosaur hunter.
Why, of all things, a chicken? As it turns out, fossilized dinosaur DNA that is still viable has been impossible to find so far … and may not even exist. But the secret coding of dinosaurs is alive and well at your local Colonel Sanders.
"Chickens and all birds are carrying much bigger chunks of dinosaur DNA than we are ever likely to find in the fossil record," said James Horner, the inspiration for the original Jurassic Park's Alan Grant. [Image Gallery: The Life of T. Rex]
State of the field
Horner shook up the paleontological establishment with his work onMaiasaura fossils in the 1980s, when he published a book detailing their communal behaviors. He has also championed the idea that Tyrannosaurus rex was a scavenger, not a hunter.
More recently, in his lab at Montana State University, Horner has been experimenting with bird DNA alteration for more than a decade. And while he has been an adviser to the "Jurassic Park" franchise for years, Horner says that author Michael Crichton's original idea behind the park — the creation of dinosaurs from intact, fossilized DNA — is unlikely.
"DNA is an enormous molecule, made from trillions of pieces, held together in a cell nucleus by chemistry. As soon as the cell dies, that chemistry shuts down, and this molecule, which is very fragile, starts to come apart," Horner said.
It's a process that happens quickly, he added. "We don't think that there would be anything left after millions of years."
Indominous rex, the enormous killing machine at the center of "Jurassic World," is a far cry from what could be created in Horner's lab anytime soon, but that's OK with him. [6 Extinct Animals That Could Be Resurrected]
"It’s all about form," he said. "Size is something we can work on at another time. But lots of dinosaurs were little.
Even making a poodle-size T. rex will not be easy, but he’s working on it.
"The proof of concept has been accomplished," Horner said. "We can get teeth into a bird and just recently a team from Yale and Harvard have managed to retro-engineer [a bird's] beak back into a dinosaur-looking mouth. So we basically have the tail to reinstate, and to transform the wings back into an arm and hand."
In "Jurassic World," velociraptors are trained for the entertainment of park patrons. The big, bad Indominous rex is portrayed as quite intelligent. And crafty. How likely is this to occur in a real-world breeding program?
"Regarding intelligence, we really don't understand it very well. We are very mammal-centric — that our way of thinking is the best way to do it. Yet we have absolutely no idea how other kinds of animals think or process information," Horner said. "With the Indominous rex, we've taken … the different characteristics from different animals and combined them together. Obviously, if you took some of the processing characteristics from other kinds of animals you would get a better thinker."
How far off might a little pet T. rex be? It’s hard to say, according to Horner.
"We already make transgenic animals," he said. "We make glowfish, you can go get one at the pet store. That’s a transgenic animal — a zebra fish that has had glow genes from jellyfish implanted into the embryo during development that makes it glow in the dark. We have that proof of concept, so we know we can make transgenic animals."
There are real-world benefits to this kind of research, beyond the "wow" factor. "Learning how to switch genes on and off and figuring out what different genes do will have tremendous application in medical fields and into many other areas as well, including making better food," Horner said. His research may also have applications in other areas, including treatment of spinal disorders.
Horner estimates the creation of a miniature dinosaur may be about 10 years off, though he admits that it is hard to predict.
"We might find a couple of these genes tomorrow or it might take 10 years," Horner said. "There is just no way to predict." Advancements in the field are typically not linear, which means progress can come in fits and starts as researchers piece together the genetic puzzle.
But the more people who are tackling the problem, the more quickly we could have our scaly, scary dino-chickens, he added. There are teams researching parts of the dino-GMO puzzle at McGill University, Harvard, Yale and others.
"It’s becoming a global thing, which is good," Horner said. "I don't care if I'm the first person to come up with it … it doesn't matter to me who comes up with it."
He just wants his pet dinosaur.