Scientists in the field of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo for short) are currently experimenting with gene manipulation that in the future may enable us to recreate dinosaurs. Let me say that again; we may be able to fulfill the childhood dream of millions to be able to see a real dinosaur. Since the first fossilized skeletons were unearthed of what Sir Richard Owen described as “terrible lizards”, they have provided mankind endless fascination and have been the object of fervent study. The thought of creatures a hundred feet long lumbering through the landscape we now inhabit seems almost surreal.
Since the blockbuster hit Jurassic Park took the world by storm in 1993, most people have dismissed the idea of recreating dinosaurs to the realm of pure fantasy and wishful thinking. The cloning technique described in the book and film involves an exceedingly complex series of steps starting with the assumption that a mosquito, having just drew blood from a living dinosaur tens of millions of years ago, then gets encased in dripping amber. This incredibly rare event would then have to be followed with someone in our present day coming across this encased mosquito in still pristine condition. Up to this point, a rational person might be willing to suspend their disbelief and admit that this much could possibly happen.
The cloning process then takes a true Hollywood turn when the scientists are able to extract dinosaur blood from the mosquito’s belly that somehow has not degraded in any way. This “good as the day it was sucked” blood contained fully preserved dinosaur DNA strands, or at least close enough to perfect that frog DNA can be spliced in to fill the missing gaps. Thus far, scientists have been unsuccessful finding anything close to full DNA strands even from creatures such as wooly mammoths who died mere tens of thousands of years ago. Clearly this does not bode well for the prospect that cloning will ever be able to creat dinosaurs.
But what if cloning were not the only way in which scientists might recreate dinosaurs? By examining the active and inactive genes of currently living species, it might be possible to manipulate a genome to reverse engineer dinosaurs. As evolution has progressed over billions of years, genes were created, turned on and off, but seldom ever destroyed. Genes lie dormant in all living things that, if activated, could transform their hosts in countless ways. This facet of evolution has allowed scientists to discover many master genes that are used to control basic features of all types of life. For instance, the genes involved in the formation of fish fins are the same which create the limbs of humans and the lack of usable limbs in snakes.
Following the evolutionary path from dinosaurs onward give us their closest living relatives birds. Scientists can look at the active and inactive genes of ducks or chickens to begin figuring out what genes were active in a living dinosaur. In time, it will be possible to tweak the genome of living creatures to once again have scaly skin, enormous size, and any number of other dinosaur traits. While it may be arguable whether or not we will ever be able to completely recreate an authentic replica, evo devo promises at the very least that in the distant future, dinosaur-like creatures will once again walk the Earth.