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Meet Chickenosaurus

on August 29, 2009
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AFP: “Canadian Scientist Aims to Turn Chickens into DinosaursIt sounds like an April Fools’ Day joke that came months too late: a Canadian scientist declares he will “flip some levers” and develop a dinosaur out of a chicken embryo.

The scientist is Hans Larsson, an evolutionary researcher at McGill University. Though Larsson has previously focused on paleontology—finding dinosaur and other animal fossils—he was influenced by fellow paleontologist Jack Horner, author of the book How to Build A Dinosaur. In the book, Horner—a technical advisor on the Jurassic Park series of films—proposes the embryonic experiment as a way to make a “chickenosaurus.”

Larsson calls the project “a demonstration of evolution.”

Larsson calls the project—which is funded by Canadian taxpayers and the National Geographic Society—“a demonstration of evolution.” Although the team does not currently have plans to actually hatch any “chickenosaurus” embryos, that could change.

“If I can demonstrate clearly that the potential for dinosaur anatomical development exists in birds, then it again proves that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs,” explained Larsson, who told AFP it would only require “flipping certain genetic levers” (as the report puts it) to reproduce dinosaur anatomy.

The project sounds far more complicated than Larsson seems to suggest, and it will yet be seen what success the team has. But even if the team can, someday, on some level, create a purportedly dinosaurian embryo from a chicken embryo, will it prove dinosaur-to-bird evolution?

Consider this analogy: a robotics company produces a full line of robots for industrial uses. The various families of robots—each suited for a different purpose—were designed separately. However, they all share a few of the same elements that the designers re-used for the sake of efficiency. For instance, most are made of the same materials, use very similar servomechanisms, and have the same type of battery. Their internal computers use software programmed in the same language with many similar routines and subroutines.

Suppose that, for whatever reason, a malicious gang of engineers raided one of the robotics firm’s factories that was producing a certain family of robots. The gang then used their knowledge and skills to hijack the factory’s production, shifting it to a different family of robots. Such a feat would not demonstrate that the robots were developed from a single, original design—as we said, the robot families were designed separately by a common design team. The feat would only show the talent of the gang, able to transform the blueprints for one of the robot types into another. Likewise, even if Larsson’s team ever creates anything dinosaur-like, it will only show that they were able to successfully alter the genomic “blueprints” of the chicken embryo to make it more dinosaurian. That is not proof of evolution.

In related news, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have taken another step toward creating a synthetic life-form, reports BBC News.

The researchers have overcome a key hurdle in their project.

A team began with the genome of one type of bacteria, transferring it to a yeast cell and modifying it before inserting it into a different bacterium. The researchers have overcome a key hurdle in their project: coaxing a newly inserted genome to function properly. Under normal conditions, a bacterium has an immune system of sorts that protects it from foreign DNA—like a virus. The scientists were able to shut the system down, however, permitting the genome insertion.

Ultimately, the team hopes to create synthetic organisms that can execute specific tasks. While sometimes called “artificial life,” these organisms would actually simply have human-customized “programming.” Thus, as with creating a “chickenosaurus,” such projects remind us of the incredible design in living organisms—design on a scale that challenges our smartest engineers. Pouring years of “intelligent design” work into such projects confirms not that life is an accident, but that life was engineered by the master Designer.


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