Well, there’s just one problem: Dinos are not like strawberries. In the case of GMO crops, we’re talking about isolating one gene that codes for one specific trait. In the case of Jurassic World, we’re talking about traits that involve hundreds of genes. Take camouflage, the trait that (spoiler alert!) so surprises the Indominus rex’s trainers. Blending in with your surroundings requires tweaks to neural genes, skin genes, hormonal genes, temperature sensitivity genes. “It’s likely a whole suite of genes,” says Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.
In other words, it’s not a simple matter of genetic cut-and-pasting. “When genomes evolve, they don’t do so in isolation,” says Shapiro. “They do so in the background of the entire genome.” Many of the genes you’re messing with are pleiotropic—that is, they code for several different characteristics. And it’s not like all of them are located in one place; they’re distributed all over the genome. You start to appreciate the difficulty. Shapiro compares the challenge to trying to swap out an elephant’s forelegs for wings. “I can’t cut out a wing gene, insert into an elephant and assume I’m going to get an elephant with wings,” she told me, not without a touch of exasperation. “There is no wing gene.”
There’s a bigger reason this wouldn’t work. Though we’ve sequenced hundreds of animal genomes, we still don’t know exactly how each one functions as a whole. You might say we have the vocabulary to describe the language of biology, but we haven’t yet mastered the grammar. As DeSalle puts it: “We’ve had the chicken genome sequences for a decade now—and we still don’t know chickenshit about it.”
Renowned paleontologist Jack Horner has spent his career trying to reconstruct a dinosaur. He’s found fossils with extraordinarily well-preserved blood vessels and soft tissues, but never intact DNA. So, in a new approach, he’s taking living descendants of the dinosaur (chickens) and genetically engineering them to reactivate ancestral traits — including teeth, tails, and even hands — to make a “Chickenosaurus”.
LiveScience: So if you could bring a dinosaur back — the real thing, not a modified chicken — what species would you choose?
Horner: A little one. A little plant-eater.
LiveScience: No T. rex for you?
Horner: Would you make something that would turn around and eat you? Sixth-graders would do that, but I’d just as soon make something that wouldn’t eat me. And you could have it as a pet without worrying about it eating the rest of your pets.