Is it possible to create a dragon using modern technology? Most people would probably think it’s impossible. But according to cell biologist and science communicator Paul Knoepfler, creating a dragon-like creature using CRISPR—a tool to alter DNA to change the function of a gene—might not be such a far-fetched idea.
Knoepfler examines the possibility of creating a dragon in his most recent book called “How to Build a Dragon or Die Trying? A Satirical Look at Cutting-Edge Science,” which has been named one of the top science fiction books of 2019 by NPR and Nature. The inspiration for this book came from his daughter’s science fair project.
“What she proposed to her teacher was not sort of the typical science experiment,” Knoepfler said.
Knoepfler’s daughter hypothesized how to make a dragon and the two of them continued the project by writing the book as a team. “That [topic] really struck me as cool,” Knoepfler said. His daughter did extensive research on the history of the fantastical beast, outlining key characteristics that identify a dragon in folklore, like their gigantic wings and fire-breathing capabilities. Knoepfler, on the other hand, focused on the science that would be necessary to realistically create an organism with these defining characteristics.
After comparing many birds and reptiles, the father-daughter team settled on the Komodo dragon and the Draco lizard as possible candidates whose DNA could help genetically build a dragon. Knoepfler highlighted the capacity of CRISPR as being key for changing components of the combined genomes.
Although he knows that some aspects of the book are fantasy, Knoepfler said that scientists may already be working on similar gene-editing projects for various purposes. “People may be trying to actually do this kind of thing on a more moderate scale in labs around the world and there are not necessarily a lot of obstacles to trying to make entirely new organisms,” he said.
Knoepfler also points to scientists involved in so-called “de-extinction,’ or the field of study that works to bring back extinct species through the gene-editing of DNA samples to construct the first of an extinct species. He urges these researchers to consider the realistic applications of this goal. “Why are you doing this in the first place?” he said researchers should ask themselves. This question can be asked to people trying to bring back creatures such as the woolly mammoth. For example, if “brought back to life,” scientists would need to consider the mammoth’s survival in our current climate-changed world.
Communicating about science has always been one of Knoepfler’s passions. His start in science communication began during his post-doc years when working in a lab researching cancer and stem cells, he came across many clinics selling stem cells that are not FDA approved. To help patients, he decided to speak out against these clinics on his blog, “The Niche,” and lab website at first, but since has expanded to all sorts of outlets and publications, including his own TedX talk in 2017 on CRISPR.
Writing thought-provoking books, blog posts and TedX Talks isn’t Knoepfler’s only passion. With a PhD in molecular pathology from the University of California at Davis, Dr. Knoepfler has worked in brain development and gene editing focusing predominantly on understanding why certain mutations cause childhood brain tumors. His work with CRISPR has led him and his colleagues to create the cancer-causing mutations and then reversing those same mutations in mice.
Knoepfler also focuses on CRISPR’s capabilities in agriculture. “All the agricultural applications of CRISPR are intriguing and have a lot of potential, but they have a lot of their own complexities,” Knoepfler says. For example, agriculture is known to use a complex technology called ‘gene drive,’ which is a type of gene editing that can spread across entire populations of organisms to perform certain functions, such as make a certain type of pests infertile.
Knoepfler has also advocated for a temporary moratorium on reproductive gene-editing to allow time for ethical guidance to come from the scientific community and policymakers before continuing down the path toward a CRISPR-created baby.
“People, mostly scientists, came back and said the worry is that [a temporary moratorium] would lead to some law saying it would be illegal to do research [related to CRISPR and reproduction],” he said. However, Knoepfler was clear that the moratorium he was favoring was specific to reproductive use for making a pregnancy and a new person with a genetic change. Knoepfler has since referenced embryo screening, where geneticists test embryos for certain heritable diseases, as the best option for parents concerned about heritable genetics in their combined embryos.
For scientists that are also interested in advocating for their labs, research or policy positions, Knoepfler suggests engaging with other science communicators and exercising some caution in making big claims, but not be afraid of talking to reporters interested in your research or expertise. He is also a fan of Twitter as a tool for connecting with other scientists to learn and share new publications directly.