Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Chicken or the....Dinosaur???

I was about to turn 11 when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. The experience is something that I vividly remember because I had always had a fascination with dinosaurs. In fact, my brother and I's room was typically scattered with all kinds of toys, many of which were dinosaurs of one sort or another, especially of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. And the earliest books that I recall reading were books about dinosaurs. Supposedly, according to many members of my family, my brother and I were experts often having to correct others on their mistaken identification of some dinosaur species. In addition, I watched as many movies and TV shows that I could at the time about dinosaurs. So naturally when I heard about Spielberg making a dinosaur movie called Jurassic Park I begged my mother to take us to opening night which she graciously did. I was of course awe struck by the entire film but specifically I remember being fascinated by Dr. Grant's implication early in the film that birds evolved from dinosaurs as well as the short discussion he had with Timmy about a book he wrote on the same topic. Now of course I didn't really have any idea what evolution was or how it worked then; nevertheless the mere suggestion that some dinosaurs became modern day birds captivated me.

The theory that birds originated from dinosaurs isn't all that novel having been proposed as far back as 1861 upon the discovery of Archaeopteryx, a winged and feathered dinosaur. However, it took time for the theory to gain any traction, partly because of the intense controversy it engendered among evolutionary biologists. But the hard to deny vast similarities between the bones of some dinosaurs (such as the Velociraptor) and that of modern day birds, the discovery of many more fossils linking the two such as the Chinese feathered dinosaurs, and advances in modern genetics has persuaded most of the viability of the theory. It's especially the advances in genetics that has convinced most. Amazingly, what geneticists are able to do today, while a chicken and/or bird is an embryo, is reactivate some of its atavistic genes to give it teeth, remove its feathers, and even grow it a tail among other modifications. (Note that this isn't just convincing proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs; it's compelling, indeed conclusive, evidence for the theory of evolution itself). I had stumbled upon this some time ago while watching a program on the Discovery Channel but had forgotten about it until I recently watched a TED video presented by famed paleontologist Jack Horner (who was actually partly the inspiration for the character of Alan Grant in Jurassic Park). I am thus compelled to share this video which does a good job summarizing the gains geneticists have made in "retro-engineering" a dinosaur from a chicken. Enjoy.

(For the impatient lot of you I would suggest starting at about 10 mins into the presentation.)

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