ScienceJurassic World's paleontology consultant says pet dinosaurs are in our future
Renowned paleontologist and Jurassic Park consultant Jack Horner expects to hatch his chickenosaurus in the near future, sparking hopes for an era of pet dinosaurs.
JACK HORNER HAS NAMED AND DISCOVERED MORE DINOSAURS THAN HE CAN COUNT, possibly more than any other paleontologist. He discovered the first dinosaur eggs from the maiasaura, a duck-billed dinosaur whose nesting habits proved that dinosaurs look after their young, and that T-Rexes were scavengers, not predators. He's consulted on the Jurassic Park films and inspired the character of Dr. Alan Grant. In a 2011 TED Talk, he announced that he's turning a chicken into a dinosaur. He expects to succeed in ten years; now, he tells Hopes&Fears, pet dinosaurs might not be far off.
As the trailers roll out for the Jurassic World sequel, in which a geneticist “cooks up” an entirely new breed of dinosaur, Horner’s proposal echoes the futuristic optimism that serves as the basis for all those movies. He tells us about genetic mutation, “turning on genes,” "playing God," birds with tails, science fiction, making dinosaurs look accurate (“so no little kids would write nasty letters to Steven [Spielberg]”) and which dinosaurs would make the best pets.
H&F: What are some of the messier elements of genetic mutation? Is it as simple as taking one gene and just sticking it into another animal, or are there unforeseen repercussions?
JACK HORNER: Well, you can't obviously “take” a gene. There isn't such a thing as one gene which controls the whole tail.
There is not one gene that controls the teeth, either. There are single genes that you can change, but they're rare, and they don't really make a great deal of a change – like taking the glow gene out of a jellyfish and putting it in a cat, or a fish, and making it glow. That’s a single gene transformation; it's not a morphological change where you'd see a change in the structure of the animal.
DIRECTING THE WORLD'S LARGEST dinosaur field research program, Jack Horner is the technical advisor for Jurassic Park films, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Regent’s Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University in Bozeman, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution, an Honorary Research Fellow with the Natural History Museum in London and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”).
First, we have to find the genetic pathway. Right now, we're trying to figure out what the genetic pathway led to birds losing their tails. Archaeopteryx, the primitive bird, had a tail, and modern birds don't. We know that there is the atavistic gene for tail in a human, for instance, because humans every once in a while are born with tails. I assumed it would be true in a bird as well, but when I went to chicken outlets and chicken packaging companies, and asked them to look for mutant chickens that might have a longer tail than normal... They've been looking for quite awhile, and nobody's found one. I'm not positive birds have that same trait, and if they don't, that means we're going to have to try different line of genetic engineering. But I've got lots of people working on it, and they are looking at lots of different ways to do these things. And the whole idea is to make a transformation, you know, to actually make a new kind of animal.
But, you know, a chihuahua is a new kind of animal too.
So when people are sort of scared that you're playing God, or you're doing this and doing that, and “we don't want mutants.” Breeding is exactly the same thing. It just takes longer. Any breed of dog is a genetically modified organism.
H&F: How do you turn a gene “on”?
JH: Well, with another gene. There are other genes that do nothing but turn other genes on, so you can turn them on and turn them off. So we have these genetic dyes to determine which genes are turning on at particular times, that affect the tail or the hands.
H&F: But does making certain changes offset other features? Would adding a tail make the chicken imbalanced?
JH: Actually, there was a paper written recently on dinosaurs that did an experiment to find out if you added a tail to a bird what it would do. Whether it would tip over or not. It turned out the bird was just fine with its tail.
I'd like to have
a dinosaur pet. I'd have one on a leash. I'd be fun. Once we figure out this sort of thing we could probably make a Unicorn as well.
H&F: Really? Does the weight shift?
JH: Yep. Just shifted its weight. I thought it would maybe fall over too, but it didn't.
H&F: And even if you say, added teeth, does that affect its diet?
JH: No, it's still going to eat chicken feed.
H&F: What about turning feathers into scales?
JH: Birds evolved feathers before flight and it was probably for display and for insulation and all sorts of things. However, it was a selective advantage to have feathers once they began that evolutionary pathway.
H&F: What does that intermediate chicken-to-dinosaur look like? You've already started breeding these things I'm guessing?
JH: No, we're not breeding anything. All the experiments are done in an egg. We don't hatch anything. We won't hatch anything until we know we'll have one.
H&F: So you kill it before it hatches?
JH: We have to. Because of the rules and regulations of laboratories, as soon as we hatch something, we'll have more paperwork than you could possibly ever imagine. All these experiments are done in vitro, in the egg, and they're all done at very early stages. They're microscopic. They don't look like a chicken, they don't look like anything. We have genetic markers in them so we can tell what the thing is gonna look like long before it begins to look like an animal. We open up the eggs and we have these really, really good microscopes and we go down and we take these very, very tiny little needles made of glass and we go in and actually turn genes on in each cell. I don't know if you know how big cells are but they are not very big.
If you saw our laboratory, you would be shocked. It doesn't look any different then over to our agricultural station and seeing people looking at eggs to see if they have an embryo in them.
H&F: But have you specifically gotten the approval to hatch the dinosaur and only the dinosaur?
JH: We're still a long ways out in this project. We’re not talking to anyone about hatching something until we have something to hatch.
If you have the right genetic pathway, you could go in right now, flip the right switches and have a dino chicken.
Directed by Colin Trevorow
RELEASE DAY: June 12th, 2015 (USA)
H&F: How much of Jurassic Park is based in science, and how much is science fiction/fantasy based?
JH: Well, it's all a science fiction/fantasy. My job was just to make sure the dinosaurs looked as accurate as they could at the time when we made the movie, and they did. To make sure the actors pronounced the names right, their Latin names. Make sure no one made in obvious mistakes so no little kids would write nasty letters to Steven. My job was just to make sure the dinosaurs looked accurate. The directors make actors out of them. Humans don't do anything natural in a movie.
H&F: So perhaps the raptors were a little smarter than they might have been in actuality and the T. Rex more vicious?
JH: Oh, absolutely. You can't make a movie like Jurassic Park realistic. You know you can go to Serengeti, and lions aren't going to tear the doors off your jeep just to eat you.
Everything is fake, right? That's the way movies are, and if you wanted to make all the dinosaurs accurate you'd make a documentary and nobody would go to it.
When we're making a movie about dinosaurs chasing people you don't see the picture of the dinosaur chewing on the sick triceratops, you see him trying to break through a building to eat some person. In real life, the dinosaurs would have been more likely to attack each other instead of attacking the people.
H&F: You're consulting on Jurassic World?
JH: Of course.
H&F: You've hinted that people could own dinosaurs as house pets in regards to that film. Are there more elements in the series that are closer to coming true?
JH: You'll see. There's a lot about genetic engineering in there.
H&F: Are you in it?
JH: I'm not going to tell you.
The world was made by invasive species.
Every single thing was
an invasive species somewhere or another.
H&F: Is there any future in which once perfected, this process could transform a chicken into a dinosaur in less than a year? In one generation?
JH: Yes, it's possible to do it in one generation, because we're not breeding, we're turning on genes. If you have the right genetic pathway, you could go in right now, flip the right switches and have a dino chicken.
H&F: Do you think any dinosaurs would be receptive to domestication?
JH: You'll have to watch Jurassic World. The new one. But how do you define domestication? Domestication is a little different than training an animal to respond to your wishes.
H&F: Well for example, I know that zebras cannot be domesticated, but horses can.
JH: You can still train a zebra to do things. There's a difference between domestication and just training an animal.
H&F: Do you think that there would be some that would be closer to house pets than others, or is that across the board?
JH: No, I think some of the dinosaurs would be just fine as house pets.
And of course there are some that would eat you out of house and home and then eat your house.
H&F: Which would make the best house pets?
JH: I don't know for sure, but I would say any of the little horn dinosaurs, if you kept them fed, would probably be just fine. Little plant eaters. Having a little meat eater would kind of be like having a pet owl. You'd have to have lots of cats around.
H&F: So the chicken is a sort of dinosaur and is a really good candidate for this project. Is there anyway, through a far more extensive process, you could manipulate the genes of mammals and develop a dinosaur?
JH: No, you can't do that.
JH: You'd be better off to start from ground zero and just make one out of cells. In other words, going into stem cells and getting stem cells reprogrammed into whatever you'd want to make. It'd be a lot easier then trying to take a mammal and turning it into a bird or a dinosaur.
H&F: Are there any types of dinosaurs that have truly gone extinct, with no genetic pathways left on Earth in other animals?
JH: Well, all of the non-avian dinosaurs are extinct. Birds are the descendants of one group of dinosaurs call Forasaurus. So, T. Rex, and brontosaurus, they all went extinct. There is nothing alive today that is related to them, other than birds, which share a common ancestor, because they're dinosaurs.
I mean, lots of things have gone extinct. Extinction as far as I'm concerned is the coolest part of evolution. A bunch of things do go and they're replaced by other types of animals, so we get diversity on this Earth is through extinction.
H&F: What do you estimate the percentage of dinosaurs that have been discovered to be? Is this just the tip of the iceberg?
JH: Less than one percent that we could actually find and probably less than one thousandth of one percent that actually lived on this earth.
But, you know,
a chihuahua is a new kind of animal too... Any breed of dog is a genetically modified organism.
H&F: If you turn a chicken back into a dinosaur, would it survive?
JH: It's still going to be a chicken. It’ll be a chicken that has dinosaur-like characteristics. A dinosaur would be just as fine if you did exactly what they did in Jurassic Park and you brought one back by cloning DNA out of some insect. The meat eaters would still eat meat, and they don't care if they're eating a cow or eating a velociraptor. It just isn't going to make any difference. As far as plants go, we don't really even know exactly what the plant eaters actually ate, but most of them ate ferns and conifer trees. We seem to have lots of those around. I don't see any problems.
H&F: But the environment was radically different back then, wasn't it?
JH: No, it wasn't. It was just warmer. Global warming is going to get us back to that point. (Laughs)
The world was ice-free at the time of the dinosaurs. There was a subtropical climate that extended all the way into Southern Canada, so alligators and crocodiles lived in Canada at that time. It was just warmer. There's not a radical difference between it. The world was warmer in general and there was a lot more water on the land. Lots of inland seaways and it was a lot more humid. Basically very much like the world we have right now and the only difference being the tropical and subtropical zones were much wider than they are now.
H&F: Do you think the chickenasaurus will ever be commercially available? As a pet or livestock?
JH: Well, that's what I keep telling little kids. That's what we're working on.
I'd like to have a dinosaur pet. I'd have one on a leash. I'd be fun. Once we figure out this sort of thing we could probably make a Unicorn as well. That'd probably sell pretty well.
H&F: Do you ever worry that they'd be invasive species?
JH: Are chihuahuas invasive species? Invasive species, to me, is an evolutionary biology experiment. I'm always interested in seeing how that works. The world was made by invasive speices. Every single thing was an invasive species somewhere or another. It's just an evolutionary experiment. Almost all of my research has been extremely controversial when it was initiated, and I'd say, most of it now is accepted.
Almost all of my research has been extremely controversial when it was initiated, and I'd say, most of it now is accepted.