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University of Kent scientists reveal insight into dinosaur genomes

By Jodie Nesling

A discovery by scientists at the University of Kent has provided significant insight into the genes of dinosaurs.

By comparing the genomes of different species, chiefly birds and turtles, researchers were able to determine how the overall genome structure of many people’s favourite dinosaur species - like Velociraptor or Tyrannosaurus - might have looked through a microscope.

It is thought the research could give answers into why dinosaur species were so diverse in the same way there are many different types of bird today.

Scientist at University of Kent believe they have mapped the genome structure of dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex
Scientist at University of Kent believe they have mapped the genome structure of dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex

The study was carried out in the laboratory of Professor Darren Griffin, of the University’s School of Biosciences, and has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

It involved extrapolating the likely genome structure of a shared common ancestor of birds and turtles that lived around 260 million years ago - 20 million years before the dinosaurs first emerged.

Dr Becky O’Connor, senior postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the Nature Communications paper, then traced how chromosomes changed over evolutionary time from a reptile ancestor to the present day.

The team found that, although the individual chromosomes rearranged their genes internally, this did not occur much at all between the chromosomes – what the scientists describe as ‘a significant discovery’.

Birds, which are considered close living relatives of the dinosaurs, have a lot of chromosomes compared to most other species and that is possibly one of the reasons why they are so diverse.

Turtle chromosomes were used as part of the research
Turtle chromosomes were used as part of the research

This research suggests the pattern of chromosomes, known as a karyotype, seen in early emerging dinosaurs and later theropods is similar to that of most birds and, again, may help explain their great diversity.

The new discovery suggests that, had scientists had the opportunity to make a chromosome preparation from a theropod dinosaur, it might have looked very similar to that of a modern-day ostrich, duck or chicken.

One of the key pieces of biotechnology that made it possible was the development of a set of fluorescent probes derived from birds that worked well on the chromosomes of turtles.

The genetics laboratory run by Professor Darren Griffin in Kent’s School of Biosciences carries out research into how genes organise into chromosomes and how that is different between species.

The work is a collaboration with Dr Denis Larkin at the Royal Veterinary College in London, Iowa State University, the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge company Cytocell and the Natural History Museum, London.

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