Crabgrass Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

Category Archives: Crabgrass

Snark, humor, and the untidy bit of the yard.

23 Jan

Bioengineering Dragons, Part II – Design

In Part I we talked about the rationale for bioengineering a dragon.

After a healthy and instructive discussion about your dragon needs, it turns out that you mainly want one because it’s cool (and maybe you want to impress your friends a little). Louboutin, Ferrari, Cartier, they are all products that exist primarily to meet this need. In this case, the product is a living creature and I think it is important to reiterate that we must have an ongoing and continuous conversation about the ethics involved.

It also turns out you are ludicrously wealthy and able to fund this project in perpetuity because that’s approximately how long it’s going to take to make you a dragon.

Cuddly doesn’t always mean fluffy. A 1912 drawing of a lap dragon by R. Leinweber


Bioengineering multicellular organisms is expensive. It’s time consuming. It can be a huge investment of resources and people, and very often the way you thought biology worked is only the most surface layer of function, adding years on to your research timeline. Our color-changing flowers, for example, were designed on a solid foundation of basic research spanning 30 years, a known pathway, and team of petunia color experts, and a lot of that planning involved ways to overcome known unknowns. We needed a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve before we could develop a practical technical plan to accomplish it.

So, what do you want your dragon to look like?

  • Does the dragon need wings? Scales? Teeth?
  • Does it have to breathe fire?
  • Does the dragon need four legs or can it get by with two?
  • How big should the dragon be?

There is an exceptional flash game by Wyndbain where you can build your dragon with wings, claws, and 8 pages (!) of horn styles. However it has a terrible ad that plays when I embed it, so you’ll have to click here to use it.

Dragons are mythical creatures so we have a pretty blank slate. We can focus on the features we need to meet our goals — We don’t need to achieve full Game of Thrones functionality in the first iteration. You’re not Daenerys. If you had a full grown firebreathing dragon, at some point it would just set fire to your house and eat the neighbor kid.

Let’s starting by engineering something that looks like a dragon – something small, something that smells of sulfur once in a while. I’m thinking that the primary requirements are wings and a scaled body. Jointed wings – even if they can’t be used to fly – and a body covered in scales are pretty unmistakeable as a dragon hallmark. Everything else can be negotiated.

Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

14 Jan

How to make a dragon – a step by step bioengineering guide

Revolution Bio is at the top of the search results for the terms ‘crazy bioengineering dragon idea.’ While we are making color-changing flowers, not dragons, I’m pretty excited that people looking for incredible advances in biotechnology find us on the front page. So I’m going to take a cue from XKCD’s “What If” blag and answer the question “What would it take to engineer a dragon?”

Trogdor the Burninator - Homestar Runner“Feel free to follow along with my simple step-by-step instruction.” – Strongbad, Homestar Runner

Part 1 – Should we bioengineer a dragon?

Before starting in on our dragon, we should carefully consider whether or not this project has a function beyond “Well that’s cool.” Modifying a living creature in any way, shape, or form has ethical implications – conventional breeding included. Animals have been domesticated and bred for millenia, and now broiler chickens have such disproportionate amounts of white meat that they can’t stand up . Soldiers and police rely on German Shepherds, but these dogs often have terrible hip problems as a result of their pedigree. There needs to be a compelling and comprehensive answer as to why we should engineer an organism.

Our reason for engineering a dragon doesn’t have to be as direct as “I need to regain the Iron Throne”, though — maybe there are significant technical advances that could be made by starting this project, like better understanding the developmental processes that result in wings and scales and fire-breathing. Maybe this is an engaging way to get the public intrigued in science, technology and the way the two are rapidly evolving. Maybe there are a LOT of consumers that want a pet dragon, or lap giraffes, or housecats that look like lions and cheetahs, and we just didn’t know it until someone asked the question. (Is this you? Support consumer biotechnology and sign up for our mailing list here).

A lap giraffe - luxury consumer biotechnology
Admit it, you signed up for the waiting list.

Let’s take a close look at why we need a dragon, and then determine whether bioengineering is the best possible solution to those needs.

In some cases, there may be an existing solution that could take the place of bioengineering a dragon. Are you looking for an animal companion that will keep down your goat population? Why not a golden eagle instead? Maybe you want a trusty steed that you can rely on in dangerous situations. Horses might be a little tame for your taste, but a war zebra or an elephant might do just as well.

blog post trogdor part 1 dragon v 747
Left: Airplane, Right: Dragon

It’s also unlikely that bioengineering will be the quick and inexpensive way to accomplish your goal. If your primary goal is personal flight transportation, we have some incredible aeronautical engineering marvels out there in the shape of airplanes and helicopters, and human powered gliders also exist. At today’s level of technology, there is no possible way that making this dragon will be in any way cheaper or faster than mechanical flight. An animal that a human can ride through the air is a tall order.

Right now “because they’re cool” is probably still at the top of your list of reasons to bioengineer a dragon. The cool factor drives a lot of product development in everything from fashion to electronics. Dragons, the imaginary ones that don’t exist, are pretty amazing — but to get from zero to dragon, you are going to have to do a lot of basic research and testing. And when we’re talking about engineering a living creature and all its complexities, this can yield ugly, not-quite-dragon, results.

So, is it worth it? Should we bioengineer a dragon? Share your thoughts below!

Part II – Design

26 May

Why does Genetic Engineering call himself Synthetic Biology?

One day Genetic Engineering started calling himself Synthetic Biology.  It was weird, but I let Genetic Engineering do it because he is an angsty teenager with something to prove to the world.

But then everybody started calling Genetic Engineering by his nom de Pubmed—Synthetic Biology.  Even people who have known Genetic Engineering since the 80s started calling him this.  Everybody knows who Genetic Engineering is.  Nobody can tell you (or at least nobody can agree on) who Synthetic Biology is because he doesn’t exist.

Black is the new LB

Black agar allows the yeast to fully comprehend the futility of its existence.

(Caption, Crabgrass; Photo from Sylvia Huttner’s bioart at Pavillion35 – please visit her site for original context)

Somehow Genetic Engineering thinks that just because he is now “applying engineering principles” to biology (what do you think he was doing before?), or getting codon optimized DNA synthesized, that he is all of a sudden doing something totally different.  Let me be the one to tell you.  He isn’t.  Genetic Engineering is on the same trajectory he has always been on. He’s just learned a few new tricks he is inordinately proud of.

Genetic Engineering has always been learning things from his buddies Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, then rationally designing and testing novel biological systems to introduce new functions in living organisms.  Remember back in the 70s and early 80s when Molecular Biology told him all that stuff about promoters and what a lactamase is good for? Genetic Engineering used that information to make a whole bunch of cloning plasmids with antibiotic selectable markers, and he threw in a pretty sweet multiple cloning site too.  Then, after Biochemistry figured out how to make DNA in a cell-free system by adding polymerase, a pinch of nucleotides, and some temperature cycles (That was so totally like Biochemistry to invent that)– Genetic Engineering was on a roll and to this day is still exploring the applications of this technology.

30 year old science, still impressive today.

Could we do this without synthetic biology? Well…yes. This picture was taken in 1986.

See the original paper and this timeline from GlowingPlant

Genetic Engineering has so much lot to be proud of – he’s made some huge advancements – but now he’s hiding behind this new name. Rather than rtPCRing off of some mRNA to grab a gene, he’s calling up a DNA synthesis company and getting codon-optimized genes mailed to him—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.  Now that Molecular Biology has given him a whole palette of characterized promoters and repressors, Genetic Engineering is making a toggle switch—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.  Now that Biochemistry has learned so much more about protein folding that he can create novel enzymatic activities, Genetic Engineering is popping these genes into a pathway—and calling himself Synthetic Biology.

What’s fundamentally different about what Genetic Engineering is doing today and what Genetic Engineering was doing 10 or 20 years ago?  There are more pieces involved now, and the supporting technologies are better, but it’s essentially the same thing. Genetic Engineering is growing up, and he doesn’t need to call himself something different just because he has some new toys.

So lets all agree to call Genetic Engineering by his real name, and not this contrived nonsensical name.  Take off that mascara too.  You look ridiculous.