Chickens have a deep, dark secret locked away in their genes: they used to be dinosaurs. Researchers at Harvard University have figured out how to access these genes to send chickens back to to the Cretaceous era, giving them reptilian snouts like alligators.
Way back in the time of dinosaurs and cave men, chickens and alligators (and birds and reptiles in general) shared a common ancestor. At some point the chickens went off to evolve into chickens while the alligators went off and didn't do much evolving at all, but despite some significant differences (including the fact that one now eats the other), both of these animals share a lot of the same genetic code. The difference is that chickens have all the chicken genes turned on, and all (or most of) the reptile/alligator/dinosaur genes turned off.
Using a special protein with the ability to suppress certain genetic signalling molecules that control anatomical development, Harvard researcher Arhat Abzhanov has been able to alter the development of chicken embryos so that instead of beaks, they grow snouts like alligators. Essentially, this is rewinding evolution, causing the chicken to genetically regress back to when all chickens were actually dinosaurs. With enough tweaking, Abzhanov hopes to eventually hatch one of these out of a modified chicken egg:
As it turns out, these genetic tweaks work forwards as well as backwards, suggesting that it may also be possible to actually speed up chicken evolution instead of rewinding it. But so far, both types of experiments are restricted to chicken embryos, and due to ethics regulations none of the modified eggs are allowed to hatch.
If you're wondering how this research applies to you, allow me to point out three things:
- Understanding how to control anatomical gene signalling may lead to a way to eliminate birth defects in the womb.
- We're now one step closer to Jurassic Park. Seriously.
- We're now also one step closer to the era of the FUTURE CHICKEN, which means that the days of humanity are numbered.
Isn't science just the best thing ever?