A 68 million-year-old DNA sample retrieved from soft tissue cells found in a recently excavated pregnant Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil has led researchers at North Carolina State University to produce the first fully living dinosaur embryo in millions of years.
The pregnant Tyrannosaurus Rex’s DNA, that was preserved in “extremely good condition” according to experts, was introduced into the skin cells of a chicken, a modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“We often think of the T-Rex as this huge crocodile-like bipedal reptile but in fact, its closest modern relative are birds and the T-Rex was actually the dinosaur equivalent of a chicken” explains Linda Rushmore, head researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Paleontology Research Lab.
“The similarity of both DNA’s actually surprised us at first and we are extremely enthustiac about the positive results and growth of the embryo,” she adds.
A chicken-dinosaur hybrid
The living embryo is not a 100% dinosaur, but instead a genetically modified hybrid between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a chicken, explains Helmut Hans Fraser, a molecular biologist at North Carolina State University.
“It is impossible to recreate a fully living dinosaur from these limited samples of DNA, but we have successfully introduced this DNA into living chicken skin cells, so the results of this embryo, if it comes to terms and eventually survives its own birth and does not present any biological defects, will be a total surprise. We have no idea what to expect at all,” explains the assistant research professor of molecular biology sciences. “We have noticed that the embryo grows at abnormal rates for a common chicken embryo. It is presently at a fifth the size of a normal chicken embryo’s development after only three days, but its growth seems exponential, which is clearly fascinating” he admits, visibly enthused by the discovery.
An ethical debate
Although many scientists have perceived the news as a positive advancement for science, some experts believe the experiment is “unethical and possibly dangerous”.
“Who would want, in his right mind, to bring back to life a 4-meter high creature weighing approximately 8 tons?” asks French bioethicist, Jacques Clement, at the University of Versailles in Paris. “There is already a leading consensus that GMO foods can cause damage to human DNA, and now we are creating a Frankenstein-like creature from dinosaur DNA? If extraterrestrials are looking at us right now, they must be shaking their heads in disbelief,” he says with humor. “What happens if this species cross breeds with modern chickens? This could alter our modern chickens DNA forever as do GMO plants when they interbreed with millennia-old species,” he adds as a warning.
Last year, Harvard geneticist George Church and his colleagues successfully used a similar gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to insert mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into the DNA of elephant skin cells.