How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever
Jack Horner, James Gorman
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A world-renowned paleontologist takes readers all over the globe to reveal a new science that trumps science fiction: how humans can re-create a dinosaur.
In movies, in novels, in comic strips, and on television, we’ve all seen dinosaurs—or at least somebody’s educated guess of what they would look like. But what if it were possible to build, or grow, a real dinosaur, without finding ancient DNA? Jack Horner, the scientist who advised Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, and a pioneer in bringing paleontology into the twenty-first century, teams up with the editor of The New York Times,’s Science Times section to reveal exactly what’s in store.
In the 1980s, Horner began using CAT scans to look inside fossilized dinosaur eggs, and he and his colleagues have been delving deeper ever since. At North Carolina State University, Mary Schweitzer has extracted fossil molecules—proteins that survived 68 million years—from a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil excavated by Horner. These proteins show that T. rex and the modern chicken are kissing cousins. At McGill University, Hans Larsson is manipulating a chicken embryo to awaken the dinosaur within: starting by growing a tail and eventually prompting it to grow the forelimbs of a dinosaur. All of this is happening without changing a single gene.
This incredible research is leading to discoveries and applications so profound they’re scary in the power they confer on humanity. How to Build a Dinosaur is a tour of the hot rocky deserts and air-conditioned laboratories at the forefront of this scientific revolution.
know how tissues degrade. We know how long it takes under different environmental conditions.” Laboratory research has tracked the same processes at the cellular level. “We know how long it takes for membranes to break down. We know how long it takes for the nucleus to go away. We even know the cellular kinetics. We know the enzymes involved. We know how they interact with one another. We know how cells degrade. We know how proteins degrade. We know how tissues degrade. We know it. Well, they
rock, they found that just as ancient rock contained the fossil bones of animals, the fossil bones contained their own microscopic histories. So, a few geochemists added the prefix bio- to their discipline and began to prospect within fossils in the way that most of my colleagues and I prospect in the Hell Creek or Two Medicine Formations. One of these biogeochemists, and a pioneer in her field, is Peggy Ostrom at Michigan State University. “Molecules are fossils too,” she says, as a kind of
rewinding the course of development. We don’t have to give the embryo new genes, just adjust the growth factors and other chemicals that direct development. And by doing that we can see what must have changed during evolution, and what the old pattern of regulation was. If we learn enough, this will give us enormous insight into the fundamentals of biology, development, and evolution. It will also be the first step in growing a dinosaur. 7 REVERSE EVOLUTION EXPERIMENTING WITH EXTINCTION
particular expertise. What I want to say is that the attempt to make a dinosaur as I’m suggesting fits within the common practices of science and medical research. On the big questions, it does not occupy such a special position that it needs to be discussed separately. It may seem extreme, but I don’t think it is. First off, what Hans is doing so far, and the only work that he is planning, involves working with embryos, none of which will hatch. Experimentation on an embryo, at his university
there are far greater injustices and indignities that billions of chickens face every day. Common sense would suggest that not allowing an egg to hatch, or humanely killing even a full-grown chicken, are actions that society recognizes as legitimate, given even the small return of a meal. The potential return is much greater here. No one is ready to let an embryo experiment hatch yet. But when that point is reached, when the plan is to have a fully formed dinosaurlike chick hatch, then the