Which came first, the chicken or the dinosaur?

The riddle will have a trick answer if Jack Horner succeeds in his quest to create a chickenosaurus.

Horner, 65, the renowned paleontologist at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies, always wanted a pet dinosaur.

He has been intrigued for years with the idea of making one, by reviving dinosaur traits in a chicken, an idea he presented in the 2009 book, “How To Build A Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to be Forever.”

Now Horner is kicking things up a notch. With all private donations, including some from “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas, Horner plans to launch the dino-chicken genetic engineering project in a lab on the Bozeman campus.

The university is advertising to hire a post-doctoral biology researcher to work full-time on the project, with Horner and Christa Merzdorf in the department of cell biology and neuroscience.

Must be innovative, self-starter, able to think outside the box.

“I’m very excited about it,” Horner said this week, sitting in his cluttered office in the museum basement, surrounded by fossils, books, computer screens and chickenosaurus drawings. “We’ve got so much work to do; we’ve decided to do some of it here. It’s mushrooming. We’re expanding the project.”

It should provide opportunities for some students to get fired up about evolutionary development biology, Horner added.

“He’s always doing exciting stuff,” said Shelley McKamey, the museum’s director, “and I’m really glad he’s going to be doing it here in Bozeman.”

Horner’s theory is that birds are living descendants of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs had long tails, hands and teeth, yet birds don’t. His goal is to reverse evolution, to find which genes in a chicken embryo control formation of tails, hands and teeth, to switch them back on, so that someday a chickenosaurus can hatch from an egg.

“With paleontology there’s only so much you can do. Dinosaurs are dead,” Horner said. “But you can learn from birds a great deal about extinct dinosaurs, and along the way learn about genetic repression or switches. That could help with some medical problems. … The more we learn the better.”

The dino-chicken idea first hatched in a bar, when Horner was talking with Hans Larsson, a Canadian paleontologist from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, as Wired Magazine reported in last month’s cover story on “How to Hatch a Dinosaur” (“What could possibly go wrong?” it asked).

Larsson talked about finding the genes responsible for reducing dinosaurs’ tails and hands as they evolved into birds. Horner thought if the genes could be found, they could be switched on or off to reverse evolution.

Initial work was done in Larsson’s lab, funded in part by Horner’s book advance money. Now Horner wants to create a consortium of universities to expand the research. After all, it’s a lot of trial and error. There are 17,000 to 23,000 genes in a chicken.
 “The more people you have thinking about problems,” he said, “the better chance it will get done.”

Horner’s idea has plenty of skeptics and critics, as Wired pointed out. Yes, researchers have been able to stimulate normal chicken embryos to create tooth buds. But that’s a long way from creating bone-ripping teeth. Chickens have no tooth enamel gene.

Horner is unfazed by naysayers, and says he talked to one researcher last week who’s working on a gene that knocks out feathers.

“There are a lot of people who think it won’t work. I’m all for skeptics,” Horner said. “But I’m the kind of scientist, if I worried what people think I couldn’t do, I wouldn’t get much done.”

Public reaction has been divided. Many people are fascinated, and their excitement has generated new donations. Others have expressed concerns about creating Frankenstein chickens or mutant animals that might suffer.

“Every organism born is a mutant,” Horner said. “We’re different from our parents, we’re a mutation from our parents. We’re not a clone.

“Selective breeding produces basically the same thing. You keep selecting different characteristics over a longer period of time. You go from a wolf to a Chihuahua. We’re just doing it in a much shorter period of time.”

Every once in a while, people are born with a tail, because our ancestors had tails, and doctors just lop it off, Horner said. “We’re just trying to reactivate that tail in birds.

“I’m excited about having the public involved,” Horner said. “Most science is done behind closed doors. We’re allowing people to be part of it.”

As far as Frankenchicken goes, Horner said he’s only making one at a time. Most experiments end within the egg, with the embryo’s death.

If he ever does get a chickenosaurus, he said, “It will be as much a monster as any of the breeds of cats or dogs.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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