NAI Workshop Without Walls
Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection:
Rewinding the Tape of Life

On November 8-10, 2010, participants presented lectures discussing 'top down' origin of life research, which will ultimately allow us to rewind the evolutionary record of biochemical processes and assemblies.

Of special interest is Steve Benner's (Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution) presentation, Paleogenetics. Bringing Experimental Methods to Bear on Historical Models for Earth

"The emerging field of paleogenetics...infers structures of ancient genes and proteins by analysis of the structures of their descendents, resurrects those proteins using biotechnology, and examines them experimentally in the laboratory."

Notable Articles by Steven Benner

The early days of paleogenetics: connecting molecules to the planet

Is there a common chemical model for life in the universe?

Molecular Paleoscience: Systems Biology from the Past

Inferring the palaeoenvironment of ancient bacteria on the basis of resurrected proteins

Planetary Biology - Paleontological, Geological, and Molecular Histories of Life

Resurrecting ancestral alcohol dehydrogenases from yeast

The resurrection of ribonucleases from mammals: from ecology to medicine

Like an evolutionary proof of concept, scientists are reverse engineering chicken embryos to express ancient genes. These conserved genes, or atavisms, still exist in modern day birds. In essence, chickens and other birds possess the instructions for making a dinosaur.

Hans Larsson (McGill University), Matthew Harris (Max Planck Institute), and John Fallon (University of Wisconsin) are at the forefront of this research, using genetic engineering and other technologies to turn on and off genetic "switches" and induce expression of atavistic traits. We now have chicken embryos with teeth, longer vertebrae comparable to that of archaeopteryx, and the knowledge to turn feathers back into scales.

Paleontologists already know that some, perhaps many, dinosaurs had feathers. One archaeopteryx specimen produced the best-known fossil in history, with visible feathers imprinting the stone. Evolutionary biologists still aren't quite sure how flight evolved, but there are at least a few strong theories. By further exploring the evo-devo of modern birds, we not only move closer to a living dinosaur, but we learn a great deal about evolution as well.

Bambiraptor model showing abundant feathers. Feathers likely began as a way for small flightless dinosaurs like sinosauropteryx to gain a hunting advantage - longer strides meant faster movement using less energy.

CTV News - Hans Larsson

Jack Horner
Building a Dinosaur from a Chicken

Hans Larsson's Workspace
McGill University

CBS News - Evo-Devo

CBS News
Turning Chickens Into Dinosaurs

Chicken embryo showing tooth development

Normal chicken embryo (left) and talpid chicken mutant embryo showing tooth development (right).

Read the full journal article here:
The Development of Archosaurian First-Generation Teeth in a Chicken Mutant
Matthew P. Harris, Sean M. Hasso, Mark W.J. Ferguson, John F. Fallon
Current Biology - 21 February 2006 (Vol. 16, Issue 4, pp. 371-377)

How to Build a Dinosaur
Extinction Doesn't Have to be Forever

In his new book, Jack Horner separates fact from fiction and offers an optimistic view of the developing fields of evo-devo and paleontology. You will walk through the individual steps necessary to turn a chicken into a dinosaur, all the while learning a greal deal about developmental biology and evolution. A nice backstory about Horner's paleontological experiences, with an in-depth look at his quest toward creating a chickenosaurus.

chicken and chickenosaurus skeletons Tyrannosaurus skeleton