Oh, I’m sure they would sell like hotcakes if I did. However, even if I started tomorrow, you probably wouldn’t see results for another twenty years, at least six of which would be spent in school (I’ll need both M.S. and Ph.D. for this). Yes, I’m talking about genetically engineering a real dragon with wings. See, I’m not entirely sure that it’s impossible. Every time there is an article about Hox genes in Science, I read it. The most recent one pertained to changing the size, number, and position of the body segments in sea anemones. For those who don’t know, anemones are constructed a bit like citrus fruit. However, that’s not the point. There are many well-documented experiments done with Hox genes on fruit flies, but the one that intrigues me the most is the ultrabithorax, which gave the fly four wings. Now, despite its name, the ubx gene does not give the fly an extra thorax – it merely turns off the supression of proper wing formation. All insects have four wings, but in some species, the gene for their formation is turned off. However, this gave me an idea. Now, before I go any further, I would suggest going over to Wikipedia and looking up Hox genes if you don’t already know what they do.
So far, scientists have managed to swap Hox genes around, but haven’t managed to add any, as far as I know. The question is, could a fly be made with an extra thorax, with another pair of forewings and three pairs of legs? If the ubx gene is also activated, would you get a fly with eight wings and twelve legs? If so, then there is hope for my idea. Well, it’s not really my idea. Truth be told, I was discussing with my mother how a four-legged flying dragon could exist in theory, on a planet where vertebrates evolved as hexapods rather than as tetrapods. I was performing a thought experiment, she wants a flying pet. However, a reptilian dragon would be a bit of a stretch. I would start with a bird, and suppress some genes on it (like the beak), while activating others (like the teeth) until it starts looking like a dinosaur (technically, it already is a dinosaur, but you know what I mean). The process is analogous to what I did in my second CAD tutorial to change the type of suspension on the JN-2. The result would probably look something like Archaeopteryx. As far as the extra pair of legs is concerned, that would require the duplication of Hox genes for the shoulders, while simultaneously shortening the limbs and re-activating the gene for claw formation; if I start with a hoatzin, that shouldn’t be too hard. The result would be a feathered dragon. It won’t breathe fire, but let’s not get crazy – besides, that part of the myth probably comes from the extreme exaggeration of a monitor lizard’s forked tongue.
So, no firey breath, but I’m not done with this thought experiment, not by a long shot! In order to make a dragon with membrane wings, instead of feathered wings, we’d want to look at bats for that source material. Personally, I’d rather use a pterosaur, and simply do to it the same thing as the bird, but that entire clade has gone extinct, so all that genetic information has been lost. Now, turning a bat into a dragon is quite a stretch indeed. So, the question is, can Hox genes from one animal be transferred to another, or is that like trying to copy a component in Autodesk Inventor and trying to paste it in Adobe Flash CS3? Code is code, right? Wrong! Formatting is just as important, if not more so. The exact gene sequence for blue eyes in humans may code for something completely different in fruit flies, or it may do absolutely nothing. The highly technical term for genetic material that doesn’t do anything is “junk DNA.” Most organisms have an awful lot of it. The equivalent in computing is called “bloatware.” Anyway, returning to the topic of the dragon, if the Hox genes and other DNA responsible for the bat’s wings can be transferred to a lizard (such as an existing animal that’s actually called a dragon) with no loss of information, then that would be great. It’s a stretch of the imagination, and it presents yet another problem: the lizard needs to be warm-blooded in order to have enough energy to fly. See, this is why I wanted to start with a pterosaur. Then again, if I somehow had access to a pterosaur, what would I need a dragon for?!
So, what do we need to do in order to make an animal that’s reptilian on the outside, but avian on the inside? Let’s face it, in order for dragons to actually be able to fly, they’d have to be constructed more like birds than reptiles. This is part of the reason that dinosaurs were able to grow so much larger than mammals: they had more efficient respiratory systems and lighter, stronger skeletons. Well, the easiest thing would be to scrap the lizard idea, and go back to the bird. Replace the genes for the bird wing with those for a bat wing (if that actually works), and replace the genes for feathers with those for scales. Birds already have scales, so that ought not to be too difficult. Now, what about the tail? Well, that requires turning on some really old dinosaur genes again. You know, those genes responsible for the long, lizardlike tails that ancient theropods used for balance. There, now we have a dinosaur with bat wings.
Now then, I must address the elephant (dinosaur?) in the room. Were I to go into genetic engineering with the intention of seriously taking on this project, my ethics would be called into question. Honestly, if GMOs are controversial now, imagine how ruffled people would get over genetically engineered designer pets, especially one that qualifies as a chimera. Then, there is the marketing aspect. Now, Monsanto has exploited the ludicrous patent legislation to sue farmers whose crops get contaminated with pollen from their own, thus producing “unauthorised hybrids.” Honestly, with all the crap that Monsanto pulls, I think the company should be fined into total nonexistence. I don’t believe that living organisms should be allowed to be anyone’s intellectual property. This is the same sort of question that has been addressed in science fiction with artificial life stories. The difference is that the line is much more blurred with androids, as they are machinery and therefore, intellectual property is not nearly as controversial. Sentience, however, brings the whole idea of property into question. For my purpose, even if I were to succeed in this hypothetical project, what then? I could not, in good conscience, allow anyone to claim the actual genetic code as their intellectual property. At the end of the day, all I would own is the research that went into creating this creature. Then there is the question of selling these as pets. Would this tremendously modified organism be fertile? If it was, what would it actually produce? If not, then every single one would have to be created by cloning or gene-edited from the beginning. See, if these things could breed and produce fully functional offspring, then I’d have nothing to worry about. If I have to cultivate every single one in a lab, then I’d never be able to keep up with the demand. No way would I outsource this, either. I may not believe in patenting living organisms, but my belief is not law, and even if I patented my sequence to protect myself, that would allow others to tweak the sequence just enough to no longer be protected under patent, and we’d have a pet dragon war on our hands, as every company in the world that does this will probably want in on the action. Then again, every company that has trade secrets has to weigh the decision whether or not to keep them secret or patent them very carefully.
So, first thought: Hox genes are fascinating. Second thought: a flying dragon is a fascinating animal to study. Third thought: a flying dragon would also make a cool pet. Fourth thought: a bird would make a nice feathered dragon if you modify it enough. Fifth thought: a pterosaur would make an even better dragon; in fact, forget the dragon, a pterosaur would make a cool pet! Sixth thought: making a scaly dragon with bat wings would be quite a feat of genetic engineering. Seventh and final thought: forget about whether or not this is even possible, because everything I’ve just proposed is probably quite unethical. Mad science usually is.