When you’re looking up at the giant velociraptor that’s about to devour you, remember … it all started with a beak. That’s the part of a chicken that scientists have successfully genetically altered into the snout of a velociraptor. Don’t they go to the movies?
According to a study published in the current online edition of the journal Evolution, researchers led by Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, a paleontologist and developmental biologist at Yale University, and developmental biologist Arkhat Abzhanov at Harvard University turned the beaks of chicken embryos into snouts that are strikingly similar to those on Velociraptors. By the number of times they’ve denied creating a “dino-chicken,” they’re obviously on the right track.
How did they do it? The researchers studied skeletons of today’s birds, extinct birds and dinosaurs to determine where their beaks and snouts begin to develop in embryos. That spot is a pair of small bones in the upper jaw called the premaxillae. They then looked at living birds and reptiles to find which genes determine whether the bones become beaks or snouts. Once they found these two genes, they changed the proteins these genes produced in chicken embryos and the end result was dinosaur snouts where the beaks should be.
This is where Bhullar starts tap-dancing.
The experimental animals did not have a beak, instead developing a broad, rounded snout. (However) they still lacked teeth, and possessed a horny covering on the snout.
The embryos didn’t hatch but Bhullar did some more tap-dancing on how far things might have gone.
They could have. They actually probably wouldn’t have done that badly if they did hatch. Mostly, though, we were interested in the evolution of the beak, and not in hatching a ‘dino-chicken’ just for the sake of it … We’re not altering the genes themselves yet — we’re altering the proteins that the genes produce.
Bhullar says the team plans to continue its research on the evolution of the beak.
Start to worry if you hear that Harvard is suddenly missing a few scientists or that KFC is ordering larger buckets.