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16 June 2012

Where's My Pet Dinosaur?

Where's My Jetpack is an occasional segment on Life, the Universe & Everything Else, a podcast produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba. This segment aired on 11 March 2012, as part of Episode 17: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 2.

For decades now, scientists have been promising us untold marvels, from jetpacks to hovercars to computers that can think! But where are these wonders of technology? In Where's My Jetpack?, Old Man Newman demands answers, and our crack research team discusses the unforeseen pitfalls and setbacks facing new technology, and tells us exactly how long it will be before science fiction becomes science fact!

In this episode of Where's My Jetpack?, Old Man Newman demands to know "Where's My Pet Dinosaur?"

Who hasn't wanted a pet dinosaur? How cool would that be? As cloning technology improves, the Flintstones is starting to look less like fantasy and more like speculative fiction.

But, if we want to clone a dinosaur, we'd need to first obtain fairly complete genetic material from a dinosaur—and that's not easy.

Unfortunately, outside of Michael Crichton's imagination, there's currently no plausible way to recover dinosaur DNA. While DNA can be isolated from the soft tissues of frozen or mummified specimens, the DNA molecule tends to degrade fairly rapidly, putting on upper limit on the age of specimens from which useful genetic material can be recovered. Dinosaurs, unfortunately, are well outside of that limit.

(As an aside, because of this upper limit to ancient DNA recovery, the fact that DNA has in some cases been identified in some older specimens has been used by creationists to argue for a young earth—in fact, this DNA is almost certainly the result of contamination, rather than being genetic material from the fossil itself.)

So, if you're looking for a pet brontosaurus (or Apatosaurus, if you want to be pedantic) you're probably out of luck. But don't despair: your quest for a prehistoric pet isn't hopeless!

Many modern animals carry within them the genetic blueprints of their ancestors, with only minor developmental "tweaks" having occurred along the way. In his 2009 book, How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever, palaeontologist Jack Horner describes his plan to revive ancient dinosaurs by gently manipulating the DNA of birds, which are the modern descendants of theropods. According to Horner, a chicken is the best bet; he hopes to nudge a chicken's DNA slightly as it develops in the egg, resulting in what he calls a "chickenosaurus".

While many evolutionary developmental biologists think that Horner is a little too optimistic, Horner argues that many of the evolutionary changes made over the years could be undone with this method. Ancestral traits, including tails, teeth, and clawed hands, could be "reactivated", resulting in an entirely new breed of theropod dinosaur.

It might be a while before the chickenosaurus is ready for prime time, but perhaps you're willing to dream a little bigger. Have you considered the woolly mammoth?

More than a dinosaur, as a kid I longed for a pet woolly mammoth, and cloning this furry behemoth should prove much easier than recreating a dinosaur.

Mammoths have only been extinct for about 10,000 years, making DNA degradation much less of an issue. Not only that, the mammoth genome was sequenced in 2008, giving scientists a nearly complete genetic picture of the animal, which is very closely related to the three existing species of modern elephant. Because of these similarities, it would be relatively easy to "nudge" the elephant genome in a few places to create a mammoth.

This is where you might expect me to rain on the parade by pointing out the difficulties involved in even minor genetic engineering efforts. But, believe it or not, things might be even easier.

In August of 2011, a remarkably well-preserved mammoth thigh-bone was discovered in the melting Russian permafrost. (Thanks, global warming!) Researchers at Japan's Kinki University and Russia's Sakha Republic mammoth museum are collaborating on a project to extract the marrow cells and use them to clone a mammoth without the need for genetic engineering. Despite the problems that plague cloning even modern animals, these intrepid researchers expect to have a successful mammoth clone within the next five years.

For every thousand species that have ever existed, scientists estimate that 999 of them are now extinct. While both of these schemes strike me as wildly optimistic, the idea that we might someday resurrect a few of these extinct species fills me with hope.

So here's the part of the segment where I take a wild stab in the dark: When can we expect to have prehistoric pets?

Woolly mammoths will surely arrive first. While the researchers say five years, I'd give it a generous 15, just to be safe. No word yet on how long it would take to develop a pygmy variety that you might keep as a house pet (frankly, I'm not sure that's even plausible)—so I'll just say ten years after that. A chickenosaurus? Probably not for another twenty-five years at least. That's a 100% certain scientific guarantee, of course!

Of course if you can't wait that long for for your pet dinosaur, just get a budgie. According to cladistics, the modern taxonomic classification of animals, budgies are dinosaurs. Really!

Chickenosaurus: Wired | TED Talk | The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
Woolly Mammoth to be Cloned: Discovery News | BBC | Discoblog
Dinosaur Taxonomy: Wikipedia

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