There Will Be Dragons. Imagine. (Full Review)

So, here it is. And the question that might occur to you before you read or as you finish “How to Build a Dragon or Die Trying: A Satirical Look at Cutting Edge Science” is, Can we do it? Because when you get around a group of synthetic biologists, talk often turns to de-extinction projects or lead to speculation about building – or, if you insist, engineering – mythical creatures. The dragon, no surprise, is the favorite. And here is a funny, light, and accessible book by UC Davis professor and stem cell influencer, Paul Knoepfler and his daughter, Julie, who had started exploring the building of dragons as a junior high science fair project. The book not only gives us the instructions but begs the question: Should we do this?

But let’s take a step back, put things into context, and get you up to speed before I start throwing insider terms. We’re nearly 50 years into the biotechnology revolution and 20 years into the so-called Biotech Century. Probably without you realizing it, biotechnology delivers the majority of the top 25 drugs in the world and already touches your life almost every day: In the foods you eat, the clothes you wear, even the carpets you step on. The genetically engineered bio-economy supplies a healthy, but growing-so-fast-it-can’t-be-accurately-tracked three percent to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. 

Genetic engineering is getting easier, more accessible, and some would even say democratized while the means to do so are more able to do more. The synthetic biology industry is creating and delivering tools that promise to make the engineering of life as easy as Cut-Paste-Grow. Gene-editing with technologies like CRISPR is making all sorts of groovy genetic modifications more accurate. Smart countries around the world are investing in bioeconomy blueprints because governments expect biology as technology will a great economic driver. Need further proof? World-famous technology seed accelerator Y-Combinator started accepting biotechnology companies a few years back, and copycat incubators and accelerators are popping up everywhere. Not to mention that the proliferation of microbreweries puts every American within 10 miles of biotechnology-enabling fermentation infrastructure.

That all said, biotech is by no means easy. It’s not widespread. So don’t believe the hype just yet.

Applications of biological technologies can’t come fast enough: We need more biology to feed more people, revive habitats, keep us healthy, and even get us off-planet. We need those biotech applications you know, um, like yesterday. But this might be too much for the anti-GMO and biosecurity crowd since it’s easier for biotechnologies to fly under the radar.

But let’s quickly get back to building dragons. A frivolous undertaking, say you. Perhaps. But I think not.

We need to think bigger to take on those grand challenges, like land on Mars or save humanity from climate change. Building a dragon, I would suggest, is the perfect project.

Why? Because it’s a hella challenge (which I’ll get into shortly). And because one thing that hasn’t changed about us humans is our love of dragons or dragon-like creatures. These fire-breathing beasts have appeared in the mythology of nearly every culture of the world. The Knoepflers remind us that Western media glorifies European-type dragons that have wings, fly, breathe fire, and generally are bad-ass aggressive. We do rarely see cute dragons like the pain-in-the-ass Toothless and his ilk in the billion-dollar How to Train Your Dragon franchise, and the moderately aggressive Dragon that seduces Shrek’s sidekick Donkey and weirdly goes on to form a family with him – both are well-loved. But generally, we tend toward dragons like the trio that Game of Thrones’ Daenerys inherits, hatches, raises then sicks on deserving bad guys with her “Dracarys” (spoken with a measued lack of emotion) burning those bastards all to hell.

In contrast, Chinese (or Eastern) dragons are more commonly depicted as serpent- or snake-like with four legs. They control water, rainfall and typhoons and floods, and symbolize potent and auspicious powers. The dragon is the first animal of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, and people born under that sign are considered life-long lucky. The only recent (and OK it’s not so recent) depiction of such a beast was the sidekick, shapeshifting, flying – and yes, fire-breathing – dragon, Dojo Kanojo Cho in the forgotten animated series Xiaolin Showdown

According to the Knoepflers, the distinction between Western and Eastern dragons is vital because “Asian dragons would be relatively easier to build. No fire or wings to worry about…[but] we want to focus on building a Western dragon because we want to make flying and fire-breathing lizards.” Get it?

Building a Western Dragon is a riskier, but we have a fetish for Sisyphian challenges, so what the hell, if we’re going to do this, LET’S DO THIS! AND DO IT BIG TIME. 

Before we do, let’s review a few of the many things we’re going to be up against: There is no real-life, living model to work from – meaning, we have to start from scratch (a noble engineering challenge). There are no instructions (though “How to Build” as tongue-in-cheek as it claims to be offers us a rough plan). Producing fire biologically is not done in nature, nor is biological fire-proofing. The number of animal “chassis” to build from (or on) are numerous and choice could be crippling. Flight is a challenge. There will be safety considerations. Not to mention dragon intelligence and reproduction. And lest we forget, ugly, unwritten regulatory stuff. And of course, those pesky ethical issues.

Listen closely now: Even though building a dragon will require a hella large team of scientists, engineers, and specialists (and a fire department or fire-fighting expert because the dragon “may be especially prone to fire-breathing accidents when it is young), it will require (though Knoepflers don’t mention it) a communications team able to excite and sway the public. It will also require money. Lots and lots of money.

The dragon-building exercise, like the Genome Project Write (GP Write) that seeks to build entire genomes from scratch, will undoubtedly yield new technologies that can be applied (and no-doubt) monetized elsewhere.

The Knoepflers aren’t afraid to address and take apart the challenges in the face of the current state of science (CRISPR!). It is, no doubt, uncharted territory with the devil in the details, and it either grabs you, or it doesn’t. It grabbed me. But I also think it’s inevitable – hell, I spent almost ten years writing a children’s book series about kids that make it happen after adults fail. I laughed many times, out loud, at the Knoepfler’s absurd but necessary considerations. For example, “dragon moonshine” examines people with auto-brewery syndrome (who knew?) and debates whether ethanol production in our dragons would be a flammable alternative to the gut-produced methane or hydrogen gases they’d be using to produce fire. How to ignite that gas is debated whether using a red phosphorous-containing gizzard or flint or electrolytes, the electricity-producing cells that electric eels use a defense mechanism.

Where I can’t entirely agree with the Knoepflers is “With some training, our dragon could learn to release its electrical spark coordinately with breathing of flammable gasses… which might prove to be a more reliable way to generate repeated bouts of fire-breathing.” I do like that better than grinding teeth and am of the opinion that dragon fire should be triggered by a hormonal flight or fight response in a fit of anger. Careful now.

There is enough in HOW TO BUILD to obsess the true, mainlining dragon-builder for a godly amount of time.

The Knoefplers do a good job considering, for example, all the ways things could go wrong. “Getting it wrong and an unfortunate mishap is deadly to onlookers. Our dragon could even die due to such a mistake. Small understatement.

You might, in reading this, form an opinion on how or whether this will go down. This building of dragons. IRL. Here’s mine:

Someone we know (yes, you probably know this person) will set up a garage lab or a company to start making it happen.

They’ll come out of alpha with the cell biology to build electricity-conducting wires that can be amped high enough to create the spark that can light the flammable gas. They’ll show that DNA grown on the surface of scales is fireproof (the DNA is). They’ll get funding and make the mistake of going public too soon. This will spark outrage and require a pivot – in story at least – which, not-ironically, will attract even more funding. (You know how that story goes.) New tools and techniques will emerge, come close to, but never reach commercialization.

Bleeding cash, our dragon-building company will try self-funding via a direct-to-consumer subscription service that gets kids around the world addicted to the idea that they too – with enough money – own their own pet dragon. (“Mommy, please! Poppy’s mom let her have one.”) The company will crash and burn spectacularly to the joy of detractors, fundamentalists, the anti-GMO crowd, and parents everywhere. They will breathe a sigh of relief, “Where would we put that damn dragon anyway?” Over time, those dragon-addicted kids will be heart-broken. But some will go on to start their dragon-building startups. Soon enough, dragons. Everywhere. A menace.

Until that happens, we have Knoepfler and Knoepfler’s book, which I predict more than a few will read as a set of instructions (or instructions for instructions). So let’s pause, smile, and remember the dragons we’ve read about, imagine those we’ll build, and give thanks to the daughter and father team that gave us this gift of a book to read and ponder.

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