A team of researchers has created a chicken embryo which later developed feet like those of a dinosaur using genetic manipulation.
It may sound like the plot of a bad B-movie, and a potential recipe for disaster, but in fact the work was undertaken to demonstrate the evolutionary link between birds and theropod dinosaurs, according to AFP.
Scientists have only very recently realized that not every dinosaur has been extinct for the last 65 million years. Research into fossil discoveries shows that only some dinosaurs went extinct following a huge asteroid collision with Earth, while others survived and eventually turned into birds.
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Avian dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx had tube-shaped fibula bones that reached the ankle, alongside a tibia of the same length. A later group of avian dinosaurs, the Pygostylians, had shorter and sharper fibula bones.
Modern birds still show signs of this growth, but their fibula are shorter and thinner. They never grow as far as the ankle.
University of Chile scientists make chickens with dinosaur legs
A team of researchers led by Joao Botelho at the University of Chile have now figured out how this evolution occurred by manipulating the genes of regular chickens. The test subjects developed dinosaur-like fibulas on their lower legs.
The researchers published the results of their research in the journal Evolution last week. “By inhibiting early maturation of a leg of the chicken embryo, the leg reverts to the shape that dinosaurs’ legs had,” said Alexander Vargas, one of the six researchers. “The result is a chicken embryo with dinosaur legs.”
The theropod group of dinosaurs started out as meat-eaters, but later evolved to eat plants and insects. Birds as we know them today evolved from small theropod dinosaurs in the Jurassic period, around 145 million years ago.
Not the first time chickens with dinosaur traits have been made
Over the course of the study the team manipulated the Indian hedgehog homolog gene, which is found in every animal including humans. The aim was to find out when birds still had a dinosaur-like fibula bone, and research showed that it grew when they delayed early development.
“Experimental downregulation of IHH signalling at a postmorphogenetic stage led to a tibia and fibula of equal length,” the team writes. “The fibula is longer than in controls and fused to the fibulare, whereas the tibia is shorter and bent.”
Dr Vargas says that the research improves our knowledge of the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, and highlights the genetic mutations involved in evolution. The work also confirmed that characteristics from the evolutionary past can be made to regrow by intervening in early maturation.
The dino-chickens were not allowed to hatch, but that wasn’t the point of the research. The aim was to improve our knowledge of the biological processes involved in evolution. While the study is certainly pretty cool, it’s not the first time that scientists have recreated dinosaur traits in chickens.
In 2015 the same team of researchers made dinosaur feet grow on chickens, and a U.S. team created chicken embryos with dinosaur-like beaks.
It’s been an exciting few weeks for dinosaur fans, with the discovery of a tyrannosaurus fossil in Uzbekistan that fills in a significant gap in our evolutionary knowledge. Our understanding of dinosaurs continues to improve thanks to scientists from around the world.