Which Came First, the Chicken or the Beak?

(Image courtesy CNET/Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar)

(Image courtesy CNET/Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar)

Just because you have some time to kill is a fine reason for attaching inappropriate items to live chickens — but it isn’t the only reason:

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.

I’m dying to see how they investigate the evolution of beaver tails.

This is fascinating work, and so I shouldn’t make light. Here’s how they did it:

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.

What amazes me is that evolutionary processes are better understood than gravity, and can even be controlled and fine-tuned under laboratory conditions — and yet nobody ever raises a fuss about not believing in gravity.