​Scientists downgrade chicken beaks to dinosaur snouts

Evolutionary biologists turn back the clock on chickens to determine how they got their beaks -- and possibly make them look more badass.

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
3 min read

A side-by-side comparison of the dinosaur Anchiornis, left, and the modern chicken, right, shows the similarities between their beaks. If you want to make your own dinosaur-chicken hybrid at home, simply print the pictures above and do some cutting and pasting. Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar

The wondrous chicken has not only evolved into a creature whose delicious meat can be sauteed and deep fried. Other parts, such as the feathers, can be made into valuable products as well (I'm sure someone is trying to come up with a recipe for deep-fried chicken feathers because it's practically the only animal byproduct that hasn't been served deep fried at a state fair...yet.)

Recently, a group of scientists from Harvard, Yale and several other universities focused on another part of the chicken, the beak, to determine how it got there over time. To do so, they grew dinosaur-like snouts on chicken embryos during their development stages. The results of their experiment were published Tuesday in the online edition of the journal Evolution.

Bhart-Anjan St. Bhullar, a developmental biologist from Yale University who co-led the research, said the goal wasn't just to create a mutant chicken-raptor as part of some bizarre biologist's bet. "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 statement released by Yale. Bullard co-led the research with his doctoral adviser, Arhat Abzhanov of Harvard.

As one might imagine, creating a dinosaur snout on a chicken embryo wasn't easy. First, the researchers had to determine the "gene expression that correlated with the transition" by examining the evolutionary history of the chicken through fossil records and other existing animals such as crocodiles, turtles and lizards just to generate a hypothesis of its location. They even examined and cloned fragments of DNA samples from animals such as crocodiles and emus to find the gene expression needed to form ancient bird beaks like those found on small dinosaurs such as Velociraptor and Archaeopteryx.

Then, they used small-molecule inhibitors to stop the crucial proteins that develop the modern chicken beak. Once they stopped the proteins, the embryos formed "the palatine bone on the roof of the mouth to go back to its ancestral state." Not only were the scientists able to examine and pinpoint the exact moment in the chicken's evolutionary biology when it developed its modern beak, but they also came up with a method that they say other evolutionary biologists can use to examine other species' evolutionary histories and transformations.

This method is also a far less humiliating way to study the evolutionary history of the chicken. Last year, a group of scientists from the University of Chile and the University of Illinois tried to learn how dinosaurs walked by actually putting fake tails on real chickens and sending them out for a stroll. The results produced "a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between form and function in dinosaur evolution," according to the study published in the PLOS ONE journal. I'm sure it also produced some interesting results in how to make chickens more depressed.

It's a shame they didn't come up with this beak-in-a-lab method sooner. A breakthrough like this really could have made the plot of "Jurassic Park III" a lot more plausible.