Does this chicken taste like dinosaur to you?
Will we be asking this question at dinner anytime soon? Last year, scientists successfully turned the beaks of chicken embryos into snouts that look just those once found on Velociraptors. Last week, researchers announced they went in the opposite direction and genetically altered a chicken leg to turn it into a dinosaur leg. Is this science or an episode of The Simpsons?
The answer is science, with a little Flintstones and Jurassic Park thrown in. First, a chicken leg anatomy lesson. Once you've chewed off the meat (and licked your fingers), you see two bones. The long one is the tibia and that little one on the side is the fibula. Velociraptors, the dinosaur ancestors of birds, had a fibula and tibia of equal length, connected at the ankle. Somewhere in the genetic past, chicken fibula got
fowled fouled up.
Brazilian researcher Joâo Botelho decided to find a way to give chickens back their dinosaur bones. Working at the University of Chile, he analyzed chicken embryos and found that their leg both grew at an equal rate for a time, but then something caused that fibula to think it was fully mature and stopped its growth. That turned out to be a gene called the Indian Hedgehog – not another cartoon character but a protein (humans have it too) that regulates bone growth.
Botelho genetically suppressed the Indian Hedgehog protein in the chicken embryos and the fibulas grew at the same rate and length as the tibias, just like in dinosaurs. This didn’t give the chickens massive meter-long legs (sorry Homer) but it did make them stronger. The result of the research is published in the journal Evolution.
Joâo Botelho is somewhat of a chicken Dr. Frankenstein. In previous experiments, he reversed the evolution of that opposed perching toe on birds back to the non-opposed toe of raptors. But Alexander Vargas, whose lab Botelho uses, says there’s nothing to worry about.
The experiments are focused on single traits, to test specific hypotheses. Not only do we know a great deal about bird development, but also about the dinosaur-bird transition, which is well-documented by the fossil record. This leads naturally to hypotheses on the evolution of development, that can be explored in the lab.
Really? They didn’t once think about making a big, juicy, foot-long leg ready for the barbecue grill?