November 17, 2015, by Guest Blogger

Designer dragons and transgenic triffids

Sean May from our School of Biosciences discussed the genetic imagination in his recent Popular Culture lecture. 

How might we build a dragon? Or dinosaur? Or triffid? First we need to set some design parameters:

Feathered serpents are found in the myths, religions and heraldry of all populated continents: From Quetzalcoatl in the Aztec west; through Apophes (Apep), greatest of the Egyptian gods; to the various, potent Loong in China – source of culture and symbol of Emperors.

Most (possibly all) ancient religions revered the flying serpent and credited it with the very origins of human existence. Even the most isolated, oldest, continuous, indigenous Australian cultures widely attribute creation to the sky-dwelling, flying rainbow serpent.

Judeo-Christian texts attribute knowledge (the essence of humanity) to a gift from the Eden serpent. Moses’ power and authority came from a ‘mighty morphing’ god-snake staff; and his god-snake-on-a-stick (Nehushtan) icon. Salvation is an eternal battle between good and ‘fallen’ Seraphim (Dragon-angels) – some of which guard the very throne of God.

Arthurian legend pits the Romano-Britain, red dragon against the Anglo-Saxon, golden/white wyvern (respectively symbolic of Wales and Wessex). The golden wyvern also lies beaten on the Bayeux Tapestry alongside Harald at Hastings; overshadowed by the Norman red dragon pennon.

Dragons are everywhere – from Minecraft to Game of thrones; from Toothless to Smaug – so how could we best make one?

To make non-avian dinosaurs (and indeed dragons), our existing avian dinosaurs would be a great baseline. Anyone who has seen the first three Jurassic Park films needs no introduction to this concept.

Existing clawed birds like the Hoatzin*, recently extinct giants such as the Elephant Bird*, or even a modern rhea* chick – make the concept of reconstructing microraptors* or citipati* ‘look-a-likes’ seem quite reasonable – especially compared to current ‘synthetic biology’ projects involving the alteration of tens or hundreds of genes.

To match old-fashioned Jurassic World narratives (“you never asked for reality”) – might be a bit trickier. Yes, a Triceratops should probably have feathers, but as a marketing concept – that might not fly.

Simply widening the facial development of birds makes a snout and teeth spontaneously appear (‘chick teeth’*) – and other dino-pheno-copying is already underway (chickenosaurus*). Make them bald with a tail and add teeth – voila. For dragons (or at least 2-legged wyverns) we can even keep the wings.

Miniaturise the result (‘Shenzhen micropig’*), add some behavioural modifications (‘cat domestication’*) and a faux-dino-pet seems reasonably doable. We can solve intelligence and language later (‘mouse foxp2’*).

I don’t however want to leave you with the idea that all traits are possible – and I’m not just talking about fire breathing (but see ‘Bombardier Beetle’).

Humans have a distinct advantage over evolution because we can use intelligent design. Design obviously does not happen in nature, which is often stymied by ‘you simply cannot get over there starting from here’. For example, it is really easy to get both wings and legs on the same segment in insects, but in dinosaurs and mammals you either get one or the other (or a hybrid mash-up of both) – due to limb constraints inherited from our common lobe-finned fishy ancestor. Going back to the ‘drawing-board’ is not an option if you need to survive the here and now.

The same would be true for a triffid: Carnivory is easy and common in plants, so is stinging and even speedy grabbing of prey – but uprooting and moving at near-human speed is probably beyond easy reach. No plants currently walk; yes seeds can fly and creepers gonna creep – but those roots are not made for walking. Especially three legged walking – nothing does that (oh except kangaroos – and, oh yes, man ….in the evening).

 (*Google – go on, you know you want to)

The Popular Culture Lecture Series runs on Wednesdays 5.30pm, B13 Physics Building, University Park. The Series is free to attend and open to all. 

Image credit: John Barry Ballaran

Posted in Popular Culture Lecture SeriesScience