Researchers are attempting to look into birds' past, figuring out how they evolved from dinosaurs by making modern specimens look a little bit like their ancestors. In a new study, published today in Evolution, researchers describe the process that appears to make birds have a beak instead of a dinosaur's snout. They put that process to the test in an attempt to reverse their evolution, ultimately creating chicken embryos that appeared to develop features akin to a snout. The study was led from researchers at Harvard and Yale.
Researchers say their goal isn't "to create a 'dino-chicken' simply for the sake of it."
"Our goal here was to understand the molecular underpinnings of an important evolutionary transition, not to create a 'dino-chicken' simply for the sake of it," lead author Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, a developmental biologist at Yale, says in a statement that will likely be inspiration for dialogue in Jurassic World 2.
The researchers honed in on two proteins developed on a bird's face. In an embryo, the proteins are created differently in birds than in reptiles, which they're related to. Rather than being created from a single patch of cells, the proteins are instead created from two smaller patches, The New York Times reports. The researchers were interested in seeing if a bird's beak would go back to something a bit more like a dinosaur's snout if it had two patches, rather than one.
To test that, the researchers inserted a bead that had been soaked with inhibitors into the face of the embryo. This could lead to cell death, though the researchers say that didn't happen. Instead, it appeared to make the embryos develop more like their ancestors did, showing snout-like features and bone changes. "This was unexpected and demonstrates the way in which a single, simple developmental mechanism can have wide-ranging and unexpected effects," Bhullar says.
Outside experts who the Times spoke with remained skeptical of the study. In part, that's because it still doesn't identify the genetic root of the change from snout to beak — they only know how those genes are expressed. Still, Bhullar sees this as a worthwhile area of study. Despite being a crucial and diverse element of modern birds, "little work has been done on what exactly a beak is, anatomically, and how it got that way either evolutionarily or developmentally," he says.
Don't expect to see these experiments being used to create dino-birds for your entertainment, however. The BBC reports that, while Bhullar believes the modified chicken embryos would survive "just fine," he has no plans to hatch them. There's also the matter of receiving ethical approval.