Monday, November 01, 2010

How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever by Jack Horner and James Gorman

Anyone who has seen the movie Jurassic Park knows the theory that dinosaur DNA might be used to recreate living dinosaurs. Just get a little from an ancient mosquito (who stung a dinosaur) now encased in amber, incubate in a suitable egg, and watch dinos grow. While not totally ruling that way out, noted paleontologist Jack Horner now thinks there is a way to resurrect the past using something much more common than preserved dinosaur DNA - the common chicken embryo. He tells how in How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever.

Why a chicken? Horner has long held that we still have avian dinosaurs, which we call "birds." Knowing that modern DNA retains code from all the species from which it evolved, the dinosaur scientist poses that if we learn how, we can switch ancient dinosaur genes on and off in the chicken embryo to reestablish tails, teeth, limbs, etc. Throw the right combination of genetic switches and we get a chicken that looks like a dinosaur. It would still be a chicken genetically, but scientists could study the resulting creature and its retro-features. The technical knowledge gained could also be applied to human prenatal medicine to reduce birth defects.

Horner and his coauthor James Gorman do a good job of explaining scientific method, paleontology, and genetics to nonscientists. The early chapters of How to Build a Dinosaur can be read just for descriptions of Montana and learning about the work of dinosaur hunters. General readers may want to skip a bit in the middle chapters discussing genetics, but they risk missing some of the key points when they do. The final chapters include discussions of various ethical issues as well as closing arguments.

Horner has long been one of the most vocal and popular paleontologist and is followed by many dino-fans. His latest book belongs with his others in many public libraries.

Horner, Jack and James Gorman. How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever. Dutton, 2009. ISBN 9780525951049

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