Can Scientists Turn Birds Back Into Dinosaur Ancestors?

We know they evolved from dinosaurs about 150 million years ago, but it remains to be discovered precisely how the DNA of ground-running dinosaurs changed–a transformation that turned arms into wings, produced aerodynamic feathers, and created a beak. It’s possible that some clues to those genetic changes can be found in living birds themselves. By blocking some of the recently evolved steps in the development of bird embryos, we might be able to get birds to grow some dinosaur anatomy.

A team of researchers recently used this approach to understand how dinosaur snouts turned into bird beaks. Beaks are really just insanely extravagant versions of little bones called premaxillae. (You’ve got a pair just behind your front teeth.) The researchers blocked some proteins produced on the face of chicken embryos and found that the chickens failed to make beaks. Instead, their premaxillae became an unfused pair of bones–a lot like you might find in living beakless relatives of birds, such as alligators. Here, a normal chicken skull is on the left, an altered one is in the middle, and an alligator is on the right.

Bhullar et al, Evolution 2015
Bhullar et al, Evolution 2015

As I write in my column today in the New York Times, some researchers remain skeptical that these chickens are really developing the beakless heads of their ancestors–that they’ve run evolution in reverse, in effect. More precise experiments on chicken DNA could confirm that this is what indeed happening.

Some people may find this exciting because it could presage the coming of dino-chickens. But no one has any idea of how long it would take to figure out how to reverse the rest of a bird’s body. A chicken with nothing more than a snout, by this measure, is profoundly underwhelming.

But for those who are interested in how evolution actually happened, it’s already very thought-provoking. For example, the scientists picked out two proteins to block specifically to turn beaks into snouts. To their surprise, this procedure simultaneously changed other bones in the skulls of the birds, turning them back to dinosaur-like shapes.

When birds evolved beaks, other parts of their head was also undergoing some evolutionary changes. The palate bones in the roof of their mouth became very thin, serving mainly to transmit forces from muscles at the back of the head to the beak. When the scientists blocked proteins in chicken embryo faces, they changed the palate bones as well as the beak. This figure, which looks up at the palate from underneath, shows what happened:

Bhullar et al 2015 Evolution
Bhullar et al 2015 Evolution

Scientists have long known that a single gene can have several effects on an animal. This multi-tasking is called pleiotropy. The new experiment hints that the bird beak didn’t evolve simply through a series of little steps, each having a single effect on bird heads. Instead, birds might have taken some bigger evolutionary leaps.

23 thoughts on “Can Scientists Turn Birds Back Into Dinosaur Ancestors?

  1. Birds are said to have evolved from small dinosaurs. The only thing similar seems to be if you took the feathers off a bird it would look most like a reptile. But what about the differences such as: heart, lungs, reproductive systems, body coverings, eye coverings, different genes for feathers and scales and they attach differently to the skin, from the lowest metabolic rate on earth to the highest, body heat regulation, from no growth limit to a growth limit, from tough skin and no glands to tender skin with a glandular system, bone density, flight muscles, type of eggs, most reptiles have no legs while birds have wings, their diet is different, classification, body shape, energy consumption from least to most, etc. To go from a reptile to a bird you would have to almost completely redesign them from the inside out. A number of bird experts now doubt they are even indirectly related. Where did they come from?

    As Stuart Burgess, Ph.D. Engineering Design, Professor of Combustion Theory said: “Birds are so different from other creatures that there would have been hundreds of thousands of intermediate forms between birds and land animals if birds had evolved. It is often speculated that birds evolved from reptiles. However, there are enormous conceptual differences between the two classes of creature…”

  2. Carl, please provide more description of the second illustration. I don’t see how the three illustrations (bird, experimental, early dinosaur) show anything.

  3. All your theories are so very incorrect. Genesis 1:24 Then God said, “Let the earth produce every sort of animal, each producing offspring of the same kind–livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and wild animals.” And that is what happened.

    1. sorry John, but I’m afraid your comment is wrong and illogical. The bible was written by man nearly 3500 years ago. Long before we had the science we did today. Long before man could understand the world around him or know the difference between a pig and cow aside from looks. The bible has many fantasy creatures in it such as referencing Giants and dragons, they thought bats were birds. Using a book written by early man as evidence against something with proof is beyond ignorance. Your ignorance is further proved by denying the existence of dinosaurs which have evidence and proof, in favor of a grim fairy tail in which none of the events portrayed within it have no evidence to show they ever happened. Early man also thought the world was flat up until around the 1600s maybe 1700s. Just because something doesn’t exist within the bibles realm doesn’t mean it’s false, it just means your closed minded and refuse to accept reality.

      1. Just because you refuse to accept the divine inspiration of scripture does not make it so, any more than you believing macro evolution actually happened make it so either. If it was just written by some men 3500 years ago, and not divinely inspired by God, how did they accurately predict the exact details of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection 1500 years before it would actually happen?

  4. I would like to see the best guess about the total number of genetic steps or changes it would take to move a lizard type creature to a bird like creature. One thousand or one million?

  5. It is pleasing to see that the very significant issue of pleiotropy is underlined here, for one important aspect which is overlooked is that the “turning on” or “turning off” of a gene is a function of the cell and not directly attributable to the genome itself.

    The very common notion that “DNA creates the organism” is very wrong. Implications of this kind can all too easily help propagate the myth that structural and behavioral changes are driven by the gene (or group of genes) rather than by selection pressure, a function of the overall evolutionary network.

    It is important to bear in mind that the genome is merely a rather small library of protein recipes. It is entirely passive. It is actively manipulated, maintained and accessed by RNA and other cellular machinery.

    Machinery that is directly inherited, complete with RNA, organelles, the transcriptome, and all other structures required for function. All as a result of cell division. DNA being merely a rather small reference library that is accessed for instructions for the manufacture of “spare parts”.

    In my writings, rather than the “switches” used in this article, I employ the analogy of a piano to represent DNA. The piano itself is entirely passive, as is DNA. But a pianist can produce innumerable musical variations by using this passive array of strings.

    In biology, the pianist corresponds to the machinery of the cell together with the inputs from its environment. Some of which control differentiation.

    Biological evolution is, after all, a network function.

    The network model of inheritance and morphogenesis is explored more fully in my latest book “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill”, a 336 page illustrated paperback now available from Amazon, etc

    Also of great relevance to this topic is Franklin M Howard’s excellent “The Way of The Cell”. A “must read”.for anybody interested in such matters

  6. This experiment’s results indeed still open to be critized. In my view, every single animal in the world has its own process of creation, it has its own role in this world.

  7. if we evolved from single cell organism, why it went to huge dinosaur, to the smaller species. and what happened to the species that evolved into us… and at what stage the species began to speak??

  8. I guess it’s unlikely to get an answer, Peter Kinnon, but, in your metaphor, where does the pianist come from? Is he God? We know the origins of the DNA, but how does all that holistic system you’re talking about get inherited from an organism to another?

  9. If you take the lug nuts off of a Chevy, they fit on a Buick. This does not mean they both evolved from a bicycle. It means they have a common designer.

  10. Coool! Wow! Would be really cool if we’re able to make dinosaurs in modern days! Imagine, a real Jurassic Park Zoo! xD Awesome!

  11. Uhh,, a lot of the comments seem to be ignorant of the discoveries in dino fossils over the last 20 years – feathered dinos, bird-like respiratory systems in dino fossils, the intermediate status of “warm-bloodedness” in dinos, the fact that birds and their theropod ancestors are both bipedal runners (watch a wild turkey for awhile – you’re looking at a dino), etc. etc. IDers and creationists beware !!

  12. Living in a world with dinosaurs does sound cool but I’d also love a pet dragon that I could fly around town but I’m going to guess that the dragon would rather eat me than give me a ride. I mean seriously, in our wildest dreams where really cool things are happening, we rarely consider how bad the ramifications can be.

    In this case, while I doubt they’re seriously trying to bring the jurassic into the 21st century, and especially if reversing evolution can actually be accomplished, I’m going to have to say this whole thing just seems wrong.

    I’m not religious by any means but something about taking evolution into our own hands and altering it to feed our curiosity… well it just seems like we’re asking for trouble. It’s like trying to play god. It just feels morally wrong..

  13. why would scientists bother with evolution? They can create a perfect structure of a cell. Then, they could just import the mitochondria from a different living cell, and then make a whole bunch of those cells, line them up in a correct structure, and turn it into a dinodragonunicornigonasaur.

    1. Looking for similarities or evidence to support dino to bird evolution is not the way a scientist is supposed to test a theory. The extreme differences between dinosaurs and birds outweigh the similarities by about 10 to 1. This should be enough to scientifically refute evolution of a reptile or dinosaur of any kind possibly evolving into a bird. The differences are just too extreme. The idea of bird evolution is philosophical in nature and has nothing to do with real science. It seems that most people of science are unable to tell where real science ends and their philosophical worldview begins. What a bird is and what it does is real science; attempting to prove its existence is through naturalistic processes only is a philosophical exercise not a scientific one. I doubt many of you comprehend the difference.

      1. Clearly you are not a scientist.
        Random statements thrown together do not make fact.

        Your understanding of the concepts seems to render you comments completely invalid.

        Please illustrate your idea that the differences between birds and and dinosaurs outweigh the similarities by 10 to 1.

        1. Birds have a 4 chambered heart, reptiles a 3 chambered heart; birds have tube type lungs, reptiles have sack type lungs; their reproductive systems are different; their body coverings are different; their eye coverings are different; feathers come from different genes than scales and attach differently to the skin; birds have the highest metabolic rate on earth, birds the lowest; birds have a system to regulate body heat, reptiles do not; birds reach a growth limit and stop, reptiles keep growing until they die; birds have tender skin with glands, reptiles have tough skin with no glands; birds have light hollow bones, reptiles have dense heavy bones; birds have the muscles for flight, reptiles have no muscles for flight; and birds have hard shelled eggs, and reptiles have leathery eggs, the femur or thigh bone in birds is fixed and not moveable as in other land animals which keeps their air-sac lung from collapsing when the bird inhales during flight . But other than that, just grow a few feathers and take off flying. That’s where that imagination “theory” part comes in.

  14. Dinosaurs and evolution would need to actually exist and science and the laws of physics would have to not exist, and then you could do magic and turn a bird into a unicorn or a dinosaur or a leprechaun or some other fantasy creature.

  15. Wow, I’ve always kind of wondered if we could tinker with the genome, reverse a few switches, and see what happens. I guess we aren’t really there yet, but this is going in that direction.

    Hey creationists, while your beliefs are cute, they have no relevence in the world today. We have moved on to the things we know. No beliefs required.

    Umm, John, dinosaurs and evolution are things that exist/ed. Science and physics exist. Taking any of these things away would not result in magical unicorns or leprechauns. Are these people for real?

  16. The “argument from incredulity” and “god of the gaps” argument given above by several commenters are well-known fallacies. Serious questions about evolution can be answered by Googling, or going directly to A hint: the reptiles you see today have evolved just as much on average as everything else, including birds and primates, and yes, hundreds of millions of years of divergent evolution will produce huge differences. If you didn’t realize this then your understanding of evolution is seriously flawed.

  17. There are no reptiles with feathers. Dinosaurs had feathers. There are no reptiles with beaks. Some dinosaurs had beaks. To me that says that the two are related. Plus there are no warm blooded reptiles. Dinosaurs were warm blooded and birds are. So to me the link is obvious.

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