On the eve of a new Jurassic Park film no doubt tearing its way into the opening weekend record books with all the gnarly teeth-gnashing aggressiveness of a ravenous velociraptor, real scientists have done real science that may bring Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur vision from the silver screen into the real world.
Scientists scanning dinosaur bones from the Cretaceous period with an electron microscope discovered more than just the usual dust.
“One morning I turned on the microscope, increased the magnification, and thought, ‘Wait, that looks like blood!’” Sergio Bertazzo, a materials scientist at Imperial College in London, told the Guardian. Bertazzo and paleontologist Susannah Maidment were studying calcium buildup in human blood, and when they asked the Natural History Museum for some fossils to test findings, they received eight poorly preserved 75 million-year-old specimens. Under the powerful image enhancement, and with the help of a mass spectrometer, Bertazzo discovered red blood cells and collagen strands. In doing so, the doors have been thrown open to the possibility that every existing fossil may contain previously unnoticed, preserved tissue and blood samples.
The pair couldn’t believe their eyes.
“I thought there must be another explanation,” Maidment told IBTimes UK. “That it was bacteria, or pollen, or modern contamination. We went into it with a great deal of skepticism, then attempted to eliminate every other possible hypothesis there could possibly be.”
But it was real, and it’s a groundbreaking discovery that could change much of what we know about dinosaurs.
The findings could fill in all manner of blanks on everything from physiology to behavior, diet, evolution, and more. Hypothetically, these samples could also contain viable DNA, which traditionally has been fossilized beyond usefulness. And anyone who has seen the Jurassic Park series knows what that means.
But wait, we can’t really just grow dinosaurs from some ancient DNA, can we? Isn’t that just a movie trope?
Well, yes, actually, if they can find a “live” piece of the genetic material. But there may be an even easier way to resurrect the mighty reptiles of yore, at least according to Jack Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University. Back in 2008, Horner posited that rather than hopelessly scraping through bone fragments in search of a tough strand of DNA, we could instead turn to certain birds, the direct descendants of dinos, and meddle with their genetics, blocking certain genes and awakening dormant ones from their ancestors.
Now, a team at Yale University, led by paleontologist and developmental biologist Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, has done just that.
In a paper published earlier this week, Bhullar and company detail how they discovered that almost all birds have two potential face structures, depending on which gene is activated. By blocking one of them, they managed to transform the beak of a chicken embryo into something that more resembles the snout of a dinosaur—more specifically, that of a velociraptor.
Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see the Yale team’s modern day monsters, as they were “humanely euthanized” as embryos.
“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,” Bhullar said in a press release.
Based on what we know about the so-called chicken from hell, a 10-foot tall, 500-pound, sharp-clawed predator that ran amok in what is now the Dakotas millions of years ago, that’s probably for the best.
Although, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Malcolm notes in the first movie: