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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Jurassic chicken '50-100 years off'
Scipionyx samniticus, AP
Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago
The scientists in the film Jurassic Park reconstructed dinosaurs from DNA preserved in amber.

It's going to raise a number of ethical questions

David Stern
Princeton University
That fiction is unlikely ever to become fact because DNA simply is not tough enough to survive in that way.

But reconstructing a dinosaur from genes passed down the evolutionary tree to modern birds might be viable before the end of the century, according to scientists in the United States.

"On the timescale of 50-100 years... you might conceivably be able to alter the DNA of a chicken, say, to reconstruct something that looks more like a dinosaur," David Stern, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University told the BBC.

Justified speculation?

The speculation may be justified because the current explosion of information about the genetic make-up of various creatures, plants and organisms has made it clear just how many modern genes are closely related or even identical to those of long extinct life forms.

Dinosaur history
Appeared 230m years ago
Died out 65m years ago
Around 700 species named
75% of species then living died out with them
Moving from this understanding to actually designing a prototype ancient creature is, however, a huge leap.

"You can imagine that if we have some understanding of how the same genes are used in, say, a chicken and a lizard to generate the differences between those two species, then we can imagine trying to reconstruct something that looks more like a dinosaur.

"You would have to change the way that those genes are used during development to, say, make the bones larger, or longer, or shorter," David Stern explained.

"What we're really seeking is a very basic understanding of how these genes operate during development in a very wide range of organisms," he said.

Initial successes

As Philip Cohen writes in the magazine New Scientist, there have been some initial successes.

A Californian team has managed to get the beaks of chicken embryos to grow tooth buds, something their ancestors lost the ability to do 60 million years ago.

Any dinosaur put together using these techniques would be unlikely to be a perfect replica of an extinct one. It would more likely be a generic prototype, combining different features and forms.

David Stern says that we should be using the time we have before such things are possible to consider what they would mean.

"It's going to raise a number of ethical questions. It's a very difficult problem to think about right now because it's such a new problem," he said.

David Stern
"Certainly not in my lifetime"
See also:

01 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Chaos clues to dino demise
07 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Row over ancient bacteria
31 May 01 | Sci/Tech
'Dinosaur heaven' reveals wonders
26 May 01 | Sci/Tech
'Oldest dinosaur' fossil discovery
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