Big Question for 2012: Will We Create a Dinosaur From a Chicken?

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Could 2012 be the year of Chickenosaurus, the first dinosaur to live in modern times?

You might recall our story from a few years ago, describing what was then referred to as "Dinochicken." To recap, Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, told me that he and some colleagues were working to create a dinosaur out of a chicken.

THE BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2012

The goal is to bring back multiple dinosaur characteristics, such as a tail, teeth and forearms, by changing the levels of regulatory proteins that have evolved to suppress these characteristics in modern birds.

"Birds are dinosaurs, so technically we're making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur," Horner explained to me. "The only reason we're using chickens, instead of some other bird, is that the chicken genome has been mapped, and chickens have already been exhaustively studied."

The timing of this announcement coincided with the release of Horner's book, How To Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have To Be Forever (Dutton Adult, 2009). He suggested to me then that he and some colleagues, such as Hans Larsson of McGill University in Montreal, were already moving forward with the project.

Larsson and his team are analyzing the genes involved in tail development and researching ways of manipulating chicken embryos in order to "awaken the dinosaur within."

So how far ahead are they with the project now? Horner isn't revealing, but he continues to share that he and his colleagues are actively working on the needed steps. I think he wants the result to be complete, and not just a chicken with a dino-like tail, for example.

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Horner told me that when Chickenosaurus is created, he looks forward to bringing it out on a leash during lectures.

"We're always looking for novel ways to get the general public interested in science," he said, "and you have to admit, it would be better than a slide show for demonstrating evolution."

This year, he gave a TED lecture on the subject …

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