In a lab in the Montana Rockies, the palaeontologist who advised Spielberg on the making of 'Jurassic Park' is using genetics to create a modern-day dinosaur.
It's one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history: gamekeeper Robert Muldoon and palaeontologist Dr Ellie Sattler pile into their jeep and hit the pedal, seconds before a Tyrannosaurus rex bursts through the undergrowth. "Must go faster," mutters Jeff Goldblum - sorry, Dr Ian Malcolm -- from the back of the car, as the fearsome beast gives chase.
School children with a life-sized baby T Rex during a preview appearance
of Walking With Dinosaurs at Bialik College on March 24, 2011 in
Melbourne, Australia. Walking With Dinosaurs is a theatrical production
that features 15 life-sized dinosaurs, the show will begin it's Melbourne
Tour at Hisense Arena on May 4. pic/ Getty images
There's just one problem -- this nail-biting pursuit in Jurassic Park should never have been filmed. "T Rex could not run," points out Jack Horner, a leading palaeontologist and expertin-residence to the film's director Steven Spielberg. Of course, they didn't know that back in 1993. Nor did they realise that their colour scheme was wrong. "In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were not very colourful," says Horner. "They were brown and green, basically. Since then, we have learned that dinosaurs were pretty colourful. I mean, they gave rise to birds, and birds are colourful."
Yet even though scientific discoveries have ruled out some of Spielberg's original ideas, they have also raised the tantalising prospect that the idea at the heart of the three Jurassic Park movies -- the creation of modern-day dinosaurs -- may be closer to reality than ever.
True, if scientists were to recover pieces of dinosaur DNA, as they do in the films, there would not be enough detail to bring a T Rex back to life. But advances in genetic engineering could result in the creation of dinosaurs based on existing creatures. Indeed, this idea could not only form the basis for a proposed fourth Jurassic Park -- previous installments are released on Blu-Ray this week -- but has inspired Horner to embark on a science fiction-style project of his own: turning a chicken into a dinosaur.
The discovery that birds descended from dinosaurs means it should be possible to reverse the changes made by evolution and return them, bit by bit, to a more dinosaurlike state. "For a long time I wanted to have a pet dinosaur, or something like it," Horner tells me when I visit his lab at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. "Jurassic Park was about trying to create a dinosaur, to bring it back. We have learnt that birds are dinosaurs, so I don't have to really do that. But if you look at a bird, it doesn't look like a dinosaur, so we have to modify them. The 'Dino Chicken' project is really a project to modify a bird by some simple genetic engineering to make it look more like a dinosaur."
All of this would sound insane, were it not being uttered by a man who arguably has contributed more to our understanding of dinosaurs' development and behaviour than any other modern scientist. Unsurprisingly, for a man who never grew out of his schoolboy fascination with dinosaurs, Horner, 65, retains a child-like excitement about his work, expressed by a mischievous grin that creeps out from an otherwise deadpan demeanour.
His long, greying hair and statesmanlike paunch do not quite fit the bill for a man who served as the inspiration for Dr Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, in the first and third Jurassic Park films. But standing on Egg Mountain in Montana, the remote but spectacular spot where he and his colleague, Bob Makela, discovered a dinosaur nesting ground in the 1970s, he looks more at home than in his office in Bozeman.
That find not only identified a new species of dinosaur, a 30-foot duck-billed specimen that they named Maiasaura ("Good mother lizard"), but offered the first proof that dinosaurs, like many birds but unlike most reptiles, took care of their young. The new project, however, involves rather less fieldwork. By flicking a few genetic switches in the laboratory -- identifying genes that cause a bird-like characteristic and deactivating them -- it should be possible to create a chicken that has arms and claws in place of wings.
"We are looking for ancestral genes, to turn them back on again to make a bird more like a dinosaur," Horner explains. "And since birds already are dinosaurs, it will be a dinosaur by definition." The project has horrified some, in particular religious groups who accuse Horner of attempting to "play God". But he dismisses any claims that his work is unethical.
"I'm not sure what God has to do with it," he says. "We are using revolutionary tools, and if God has something to do with it, then I would say God gave us the tools to do something with them. "Breeding programmes are exactly the same, it just takes longer. You breed two dogs together, you select a characteristic, you keep on selecting that characteristic, and you select another. This is just a shorter way to do it. There's no difference, though -- it's still genetics."
Horner is confident that the project will be complete by the end of the decade. By then, he hopes to have modified the DNA so the chicken grows with teeth, arms, a long tail and any other dinosaur-like qualities his team can give it. Scientists working on similar projects have already reported some success, with a team in Wisconsin identifying a tooth gene and a Harvard researcher managing to alter the shape of a bird's beak.
"It won't take long to do this," Horner says. "It might take a while to find the specific things we are looking for, but we are going to find a few others in between."
As I stand in the cavernous vaults of the Museum of the Rockies -- which, thanks to the efforts of Horner and his colleagues at Montana State University, holds the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world -- and examine a T Rex jaw the length of my arm, it is hard to imagine why Horner should have decided to do something so radically different.
But he says it is a simple case of life imitating art. Some years ago, he had discussions with producers about a fourth Jurassic Park film. These involved taking the plot in a different direction, where, via genetic engineering, scientists were able to modify dinosaurs -- potentially making them more fearsome than any that previously roamed the Earth.
There have been no recent talks on the subject, but he tells me: "I expect it is going to come. We had a pretty good script some time back for Jurassic Park IV. I don't really want to give too much away, but let's just say the Dino Chicken project came out of that. "In Jurassic Park we already have dinosaurs we've brought back -- now just imagine genetic engineering with the dinosaurs we've brought back. Think about that."
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