Saur

This piece was written by Grace Ng, FASS + USP, Year 1.

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SAUR LABS BREEDS WORLD’S FIRST “NOUVEAU DINOSAUR”
Home-grown biotech laboratory reverse-engineers dinosaur from bird genome

 

SINGAPORE, June 18, 2023 – SAUR Labs is pleased to announce the success of the Nouveau Dinosaur Project, a research initiative with the goal of genetically engineering a dinosaur.

After ten years of analysis and trials, the Singaporean laboratory has bred the world’s first “Nouveau Dinosaur” by modifying the genome of an emu.

“The Emusaurus, as we affectionately call it, is the culmination of years of astronomical advancement in the field of biotechnology,” said Dr Yang Zhuo, chief researcher at SAUR Labs. “We are merely the first lab to bring such efforts to fruition, though that in itself is a great honour.”

The feat was accomplished by studying several avian genomes to locate the genes that link birds to dinosaurs, rendered inactive through millennia of evolution. These genes were then unlocked in an emu embryo, which development was further encouraged during gestation using growth factors and other chemicals.

“The emu has long been regarded as the perfect base upon which to grow a dinosaur,” added Dr Yang. “Even so, the endeavour has succeeded well beyond our expectations.”

In view of this resounding success, the laboratory plans to continue the project by expanding its breeding efforts to other organisms, avian or otherwise.

Set up in 2009, SAUR Labs is a home-grown research laboratory backed by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). The Nouveau Dinosaur Project is supported by A*STAR and the Larsson Lab at McGill University.

“For this little red dot to have made such a major breakthrough is something the nation should celebrate,” said A*STAR research director Nelson Chua. “We expect great things from SAUR Labs in the future.”

The month-old Emusaurus will be presented tomorrow, June 19, to invited guests and the media at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

 

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Benita Chew expects a lot of things of her time at TheMoneyRag.com. She expects late nights and long hours – such is journalism. She also expects to be entirely exploited as cheap labour – such is being an intern. Working at such a shady, small business tabloid, she wouldn’t even be surprised if she was fired for her first story.

She does not expect to be trudging up a hill in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve at 5:55AM on her first day of work, rapidly losing her right shoe sole.

“Okay, you should see a signboard right about now, next to that big rock thing,” says the public relations person over the phone. “Are you alright? You sound like you’re having a hard time.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Benita replies. She’s been walking for half an hour in a pencil skirt and blazer and her earpiece is about to fall out, but there’s the signboard just in front of her. SAUR Media Event – THIS WAY. “I’m just glad I’m not lost.”

“We’re so sorry you’ve got to walk all this way by yourself! We’d have sent someone to escort you from the Visitors’ Centre, but your RSVP was so late we couldn’t arrange anything.”

“I didn’t know I was coming myself, to be honest, not till last night. My paper doesn’t usually cover such things, but since I’m new, they just…”

“Oh, I see! Such a big scoop for your first story! You must be really lucky… hey, I think I see you!”

Sure enough, there’s a cluster of lights farther up the trail – white bright lights, far removed from the yellow flames ensconced in stony fixtures that have lit the way so far. If she squints, she can just make out a small shadow with one arm raised, waving to her.

“Hold on, give me a moment.”

Yanking the bulky earpiece out of her ear and into a pocket, Benita takes out her newsmaker. It’s a sleek, silver little slate, with a telescopic camera lens on one side and an input screen on the other. Every reporter’s lifeblood nowadays, when multimedia and real-time news is the only thing that sells. Benita holds it awkwardly in two stiff hands, flinching as the camera flash hits her eyes, and hopes she’s got her whole face in frame.

“Hi! I’m Benita Chew, and I’m coming to you live from Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. In just a few moments, we’ll be taking our first look at SAUR Labs’ ‘Nouveau Dinosaur’, an emu turned into a dinosaur with the power of science! Benita Chew of The Money Rag, bringing you the best business news, without the spin.”

The flash snaps off and the lens retracts with a little whir, leaving Benita with a dry mouth and her pulse ringing in her ears. She checks the upload on the input screen – yup, no problems there. Her first videoscoop is now live on TheMoneyRag.com. She can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief at that.

Doesn’t really make her feel much better, though, as she starts walking up the slope again. Business news, indeed; she still remembers what the editor-in-chief told her just before she left: “You have to find the money angle in everything, understand?  You’re not writing for the ordinary person, so you can’t just write whatever you think is interesting. Our readers are businessmen, they only care about business. Write that.”

At that time she hadn’t responded with anything other than a shaky nod and nervous swallow, but she’s now starting to realise exactly what his words meant. Her supervisors have basically sent her here on a whim, but she’s still got to produce a story that caters to the paper’s demographic. And she has no idea how to get businessmen interested in dinosaurs.

When Benita reaches the top of the hill, the shadowy figure reveals itself to be an immaculately made-up woman named Amanda Ying, corporate communications manager at SAUR Labs. At least, according to the business card she holds out. Benita herself has no card, but Amanda doesn’t seem too bothered by that; she just smiles reassuringly and leads her to a registration tent.

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“So! Did you enjoy the walk up?”

“Um, it was somewhat of a challenge…”

“Everyone’s said that so far!” Amanda laughs. “But really, it’s all part of the experience SAUR is trying to create for this event, you know? The feeling of being transported to a different world, back in time – just scan your ID here.”

“Right, okay.”

“Besides, there isn’t really any other way to get to Jungle Fall Valley. When the higher-ups saw this place, they said we couldn’t’t have it anywhere but here.”

“Why’s that?”

“See for yourself!”

Amanda pulls back the flap on the other side of the tent, and it really is just like they’ve walked into another world.

From the top of the hill, Benita can look straight down into Jungle Fall Valley. All she sees are trees at first – endless trees, which seem to extend forever with no roads or lights in sight, besides the tiny bright speck which must be the event tent. But what fills most of the valley is a huge lake, smooth and dark in the pre-morning light. Her gaze is pulled towards it inexorable as gravity, like she’s staring into a black hole, and it’s all at such a dizzying drop it makes the ground seem weak beneath her feet.

The air is so still and humid it seems suffused with life, as though the breath of a huge, invisible animal hangs around her. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Amanda gushes, but it feels like everything here is a single held breath and it gives Benita’s limbs an odd weight. More ominous than otherworldly, she thinks.

They head down to the event tent. It’s open-air this time, with white lights spilling out from under a white canopy, and it feels as big as a soccer field. Everything is just as white inside, from the rows upon rows of plastic chairs to the stage set up in front. The stage has a large box on it, which is also white. There are fans inside the tent too, so strong the wind takes Benita’s breath away as she enters. A nasal female voice blares from hidden speakers, announcing the guest-of-honour’s arrival in an indeterminate amount of time, backed by upbeat pop music. It feels like they’re stepping into a bright bubble as Amanda leads Benita down the aisle, cut off from the forest outside.

After being mobbed by even more public relations personnel, Benita’s forgotten about the forest altogether. She takes the seat she’s been led to in the media-reserved section and settles her attention on the press kit they’ve put in her hands. The press release is nothing new; it matches the one sent out yesterday almost perfectly, besides a few date changes. This isn’t very surprising to Benita – all the media wants right now, she imagines, is to see this emusaurus in the flesh.

Not Benita though, or at least not TheMoneyRag.com, who didn’t even send a photographer down with her. She might even be the only reporter here without one, judging by the number of huge cameras on tripods towering over the seats in her vicinity. She’ll probably have to badger Amanda for an interview with the top brass about research costs and investment opportunities while everyone else is snapping pictures, and content herself with low-res videos taken with her newsmaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for our Guest-of-Honour, the Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr Lim Xiang Wee!”

Everyone stands up in one accord, and Benita quickly discovers she’s in the worst seat imaginable. All around her are cameras and taller people. Even with her arm stretched to its limit, she can’t get a clear view of the Minister – a rather small man himself – on her newsmaker. This is fatal; by this time, whatever she’s recording is being broadcast live on TheMoneyRag.com. Her supervisors are most likely livid.

Benita vacates her seat completely and scurries to the front of the tent, trying to maintain a halfway-decent video as she runs. She ends up next to the public relations personnel, all sitting in a row at the side of the stage. Amanda looks at her with baffled eyes at first, but once she sees the tiny camera in Benita’s hands she nods and looks away without saying a word.

At first, it’s hard for Benita to keep her hand steady as she trains the newsmaker on the speaker’s podium. A bevy of speakers make their way on and off it, all saying things tainted by either technical unintelligibility or rhetoric irrelevance. Even the Minister proves a surprisingly ineloquent orator, his watery eyes fixed firmly on his script (also included in the press kit) as he speaks. Everything is thanks, future prospects and “we are very proud”s, and soon Benita is paying less attention to the speeches than the burning sensation in her right arm. It looks like she really will have to ask for that interview later.

She’s also distracted by the box on stage. It isn’t’t exactly white, like she thought it was from her previous position, but is actually covered by a white cloth. Benita can’t stop staring at it; even with this crowd, it’s like this box holds the most life in the tent. It draws her eye like a magnet. She knows, like everyone else knows, that whatever’s inside the box is what everyone’s really waiting for.

Then the Minister gets down from the podium, walks to the box, and pulls the cloth to the ground.

“Ladies and gentlemen, SAUR Labs is proud to present the world’s first Nouveau Dinosaur!”

Trumpets resound from the speakers and the crowd falls silent, for there stands the emusaurus.

It’s nothing like Benita expected. Rather, Benita didn’t know what to expect in the first place. On that long walk to the valley, she’d imagined dinosaurs lurking in the shadows between the trees. They’d come straight out of children’s science books and artist’s impressions in museums: leather-skinned, long-clawed, killer eyes that glowed yellow in the dark. Nowhere in her mind had she been able to factor emu into the equation.

Yet she can clearly see the emu in this emusaurus. It does look like a dinosaur – a small velociraptor, perhaps, with leathery skin and dangling arms – but there’s a droop and arch to its neck that suggests bird more than anything. While skin stretches taut on its limbs and neck, its body balloons inexplicably. Where she expected thick, sturdy claws she finds oversized birds’ feet, thin as wireframe. Pale brown scales cover most of its body but in some places they erupt into feathers – on the neck, on the back, on the joints of the legs. Its head is dinosaur enough, but its jaws protrude like they want to become a beak and its tail looks immature and vestigial, as though added as an afterthought.

There is a sense of amalgamation about it, of a jigsaw put together with the pieces of another. The emusaurus begins to totter across its cage, staggering on spindle legs. It teeters, takes another step, teeters again. Nothing in the tent makes a sound, not even a camera shutter, as though a single breath might cause the emusaurus to topple.

It continues its journey in complete silence, aside from the scratches its little claws make on the cage’s metal floor. When it reaches the side of the cage facing the audience, it sniffs at the bars like they’re a new type of food. Every action it takes is small and hesitant, like too much exertion could break it. Benita can see the skin stretching and sliding along the emusaurus’ joints as it moves, half-formed feathers vibrating like stalks of straw with each step. Its head pivots on its neck and suddenly it’s looking right at her, a big round pupil in its dewy orange eye.

It opens its mouth and lets out a rattling sort of cry, small and hollow, and Benita’s heart is pierced with a strange sorrow and a stranger fear.

That cry is the signal for the world to start again. The photographers surge into the aisle and surround the stage, cameras clicking and flashing, while triumphant orchestral music begins to play. The nasal female announcer pipes up once more to explain the animal’s scientific name, the genetics and chemicals it took to make it, the gestation process, and so on. Applause swells from the audience, though a few cry foul and are quickly escorted from the premises. The guests-of-honour and the SAUR researchers ascend the stage to stand next to the cage, smiling wide.

Benita knows she should be joining the circle but her legs don’t move and her hands are frozen, clutching her newsmaker in a dead man’s grasp. She can still see the emusaurus through a gap between two photographers – it’s been stunned by the flashes and the sound, and its pupils are pinpricks now. It lifts its head to the sky and starts making that peculiar noise again, barely audible above the commotion at first, but getting louder and louder.

The fear that noise put in Benita is mounting too. She can feel ice shooting up her spine, and her breaths are coming so hard and fast her lungs hurt. But it’s a fear divorced from everything else; those at the front are preparing to take the emusaurus out of its cage for a photoshoot. It doesn’t seem to notice as someone unlocks the door and carries it outside, its eyes darting everywhere but its handler, and it doesn’t stop its hollow keening. It’s scared of something else, Benita thinks wildly. Something’s happening, something’s happening outside. But there is no outside – the tent has no walls – and the crowd claps and cheers as the emusaurus is brought out to meet them.

“Maybe the little thing is hungry?” the Minister laughs as he takes the animal gingerly, settling it in the crook of his arm. Everyone laughs too, everyone but the emusaurus, which cries at the sky with frightened eyes.

Suddenly there is a sound of thunder.

It’s enough to make everyone stop and look up. Even the emusaurus quietens. This isn’t ordinary thunder. It echoes in a different way, resonating in the wrong frequencies. It doesn’t swell and die like thunder does either; it instead achieves a constant rumble, like smoke crawling along the ground.

No one understands what it means and hence no one moves for a few seconds, during which the emusaurus clambers out of the Minister’s arms.

Someone yells, and with that the crowd explodes into chaos. Several people try to catch the escaping animal, but it moves too fast and their movements are sluggish with surprise. The emusaurus scrabbles between the Minister’s legs, off the stage, out of the tent and into the forest. Too many in the crowd start running after it and they all tangle, tripping over each other.

Benita, who was never in the crowd in the first place, makes it out first. The sun is rising now so she can just make out the emusaurus running along the lake on knobbly legs, legs crooked and brittle with skin stretched across them the wrong way. It runs into the trees crying its rattling cry, halfway between the bongo-drum noise of an emu and the screech of an eagle, and Benita runs after it.

“Do not pursue the dinosaur! Please do not obstruct the professional handlers!” someone barks over the speakers, but Benita cannot stop running. The seams in her skirt are coming apart and she’s lost her right sole completely, but she wouldn’t be able to stop even if she wanted to. The wail of the emusaurus rips through her, tells her feet to run, run, run, sending both her and the emusaurus fleeing from the thunder. For the thunder grows, growling like a beast getting closer and closer, and it suddenly occurs to Benita that it is getting closer and closer, that the thunder isn’t’t thunder at all.

She’s still holding her newsmaker in one outstretched hand, she can’t stop filming no matter how fast she’s going, she thinks that people need to see this, need to see whatever’s coming. There are people shouting and sirens howling behind her now but she can barely hear them; the thunder is so loud the very earth shakes and her eardrums vibrate on the edge of bursting.

Through the tiny screen on the newsmaker she watches the emusaurus run. The image seems a little brighter than it was before and she thinks it’s because the sun is rising, but soon it’s getting too bright too fast. The emusaurus’ cry becomes a scream and she realises the scream is also hers as something grows hot on both their backs, hot and burning. She looks back and the only thing she sees, the last thing she sees, is fire, the fire of the meteor come to claim the last dinosaur.

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