In his TED talk, Jack Horner says that he had two dreams as a child. One, to become a paleontologist. Two, to have a pet dinosaur. Well, today Mr. Horner is one of the most respected men in the field of paleontology. He discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the western hemisphere, pioneered the idea of dinosaurs as social animals, and personally advised Michael Crichton on the set of Jurassic Park (Horner even gets credit as part of the inspiration for Alan Grant). So Horner achieved his first dream admirably. The second? Not so much.
But now that may change. Together with the McGill University geneticist Hans Larsson, Dr. Horner is attempting to retro-engineer a dinosaur into existence. Their plan is to activate or deactivate regulatory genes in modern chickens to produce teeth, arms, and a tail.
This is possible because birds are, technically, dinosaurs. Or at least the descendents of dinosaurs. As modern birds evolved ancestral dinosaur-like traits were covered up by genes turning off or changing, going missing, or being overwritten by different ones. Some of these are irrecoverably lost. However others are still present, just hidden. If we can find them, we can turn them on again. Horner’s team has already found the gene responsible for tooth growth and are now able to produce hen’s teeth on demand. They’re now working on the tail.
Of course, there are many questions about the direction of this project. Many religious groups see Horner’s actions as playing God. Others see it as a gimmick, the ultimate designer pet. Horner’s team says they are focused on furthering genetics and developmental biology as well as providing tangible proof of the bird-dinosaur evolutionary pathway.
The ultimate success of Horner’s work is yet to be seen, but I will be watching with interest. His personal thoughts, methods, and ideas are detailed in his book How to Build a DInosaur.