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Designer dragons? Talking to students about the ethical implications of editing DNA

University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

A breakthrough in medical research has allowed a team of scientists to edit the DNA of human embryos to repair a version of a gene that causes cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease resulting in heart failure. While some see this genome editing technology—known as CRISPR—as a remarkable tour de force, others find the practice extremely alarming.

Meanwhile, some middle school students are already practicing genetic engineering in the classroom with inexpensive kits. Geniventure, our dragon genetics game for middle and high school students, also allows students to manipulate genomes, but the DNA in Geniventure is virtual and the species is a mythical creature called a “drake,” the model species for dragons.

Working with drakes and dragons allows us to combine various real-world genes without having to be restricted to the genome of a specific species, a problem that scientists in many countries often run into. We’ve combined real genes from mice, fruit flies, lizards, and other model organisms into the genome of our fantastical creatures. Students thus experience many of the same real genes that scientists around the world are also studying. Importantly, using dragons also allows teachers to talk about ethical issues, including the implications associated with modifying DNA.

CRISPR incites fears of designer babiesthe idea that parents will someday want to choose particular traits for their unborn children. In Geniventure, students do “design” drakes in challenges that require them to change alleles to match a target. Teachers guiding students through these challenges have an opportunity to discuss the notion of modifying an organism’s genes for a particular purpose. They can pose questions to get students thinking about the ethical implications of gene editing: Are there circumstances where you wouldn’t want to edit a drake’s genes? What might happen if you changed the wrong gene and you couldn’t change it back? What effect would that have on the drake’s future offspring?

“Designing” drakes. Geniventure tasks students with manipulating drake genes by selecting alleles from pull-down menus in order to match a target drake.

It’s easier to discuss these issues when we are talking about drakes and dragons because humans aren’t anything like these fictitious creatures. But since the genes are modeled after real genes (e.g., the the albino gene is modeled after skin color in humans), we can translate conversations about dragons to similar debates by scientists and regulatory officials about human gene editing. In Geniventure, students change an albino drake’s genes from producing a broken enzyme so that it can create a functional protein and generate a drake with color distributed throughout its scales. Albinism is also an inherited genetic condition in humans, so there is a significant parallel that could bridge the conversation.

Scientists are using CRISPR to investigate the prevention of inherited diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and even some cancers, though there is opposition and concern over this technology. One major fear is the safety to a developing embryo. DNA that’s been modified in an embryo would be passed down for generations, which raises concerns that any mutations as a result of the gene editing could cause new diseases and become a permanent part of that family’s genetic blueprint. Geniventure enables students and teachers to start discussions about these important topics.

Virtual CRISPR-like techniques engage students in editing dragon DNA

The CRISPR gene editing technique is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than past methods of editing DNA. And it’s creating a huge buzz in the world of science and medical research. By precisely removing, adding, or altering part of the genome, CRISPR enables geneticists to target and edit genes that are associated with genetic diseases—without affecting other areas of the genome, a major drawback of previous approaches.

A recent story (CRISPR, 5 ways) includes a video, produced by Wired magazine, in which a biology professor at NYU explains CRISPR to a seven-year-old, a high school student, a college student, a graduate student, and an expert scientist in the field of genetics. The conversations range from genomes to the value of basic research.

In the final conversation with the expert scientist, the focus shifts to the level of DNA and genome engineering. Scientists who use CRISPR must understand the underlying mechanisms by which the genes affect particular genetic traits and disorders. They’re able to learn about the composition and functionality of genes from model species they study and apply what they’ve learned to another target species (e.g., the mouse is a model species for human genetic disease).

We’ve created an online learning environment that allows middle and high school students to do the same.

Geniventure, dragon genetics software

Geniventure, the next generation of our popular dragon genetics software Geniverse, places students in a virtual underground lab where they perform genetic experiments with drakes, the model organism for dragons. There is real biology behind the mythical drake and dragon genes and traits, which have been carefully compiled from the actual genes and associated traits of the anole lizard, mouse, fruit fly, zebrafish, and other model species used to study genetics. The genes that affect horns, wings, color, and other drake traits are genes that are involved in the development and functioning of similar traits in real organisms.

In our Geniventure game, students zoom into a drake’s genes, see the actual DNA code behind them, and manipulate the resulting proteins as the proteins do the work of producing traits. The first set of protein-based challenges using this new interface revolves around scale color (modeled after the same genes for human skin color) and allows students to edit the genes of an albino drake. After working with the proteins that produce melanin and discovering a broken enzyme that results in an albino drake, students enter the nucleus of the cell to change the drake’s genes (and DNA) from producing the broken enzyme so that it can create the functional protein, ultimately generating a drake with color distributed throughout its scales.

From albino to charcoal (right). In the protein-level challenges, students can view the starting state of their drake’s scale color (Albino), the current state (Lava), and the target state (Charcoal). The Start and Target views also display the distribution of color throughout the drake’s scale cells.

Proteins in action. In the Geniventure Zoom Room, students experiment with proteins and discover how they influence the color of the drake. Students are tasked with manipulating the proteins of an albino drake to restore color to its scales.

Inside the nucleus. In some challenges, students are unable to work with the proteins directly. Instead, they must enter the nucleus where they can alter the drake’s alleles to create the proteins needed to reach the target color.

Making this protein-based link from DNA to trait is critical for students’ ability to make sense of patterns between genes and traits— for example, dominant vs. recessive versions of genes— and to apply the same logic to other genetic phenomena. Through Geniventure, students are able to transfer their experience of editing genes and working with proteins in drakes to an understanding of how scientists are using CRISPR and other techniques.

Our goal is to help students better understand modern science, including biotechnology advances such as CRISPR, to make science engaging and relevant, so students can ultimately envision themselves as future scientists.

Why dragons?

Breeding virtual dragons is all in a day’s work in biology classrooms using Geniverse, our free, web-based genetics software. Although Geniverse is a game-like environment, it’s far more than child’s play. Indeed, students dive into genetics on a quest to heal a beloved dragon. Students use a model species (drakes) to explore the fundamental mechanisms of heredity and genetic diseases and get a taste of careers in genetics. (Drakes are essentially a smaller version of a dragon, and are a model species in much the same way as the mouse is a model species for human genetic disease.)

But why did we choose dragons and drakes? To start, they are just plain fun! And since they’re mythical, we can bring together into one animal any and all real-world genes we’d like to teach with—without having to be restricted to a specific species’ genome. So, while our dragons and drakes are fantastical, their genes are very much real, gathered from mice, fruit flies, lizards, and other organisms we study in laboratories all over the world. When students learn genetics with Geniverse, they’ll encounter the genes again, should they venture into a real genetics lab later in life.

Students begin their Geniverse adventure as a student in the Drake Breeder’s Guild, where they move through four levels of progressively more difficult genetics challenges and unlock new chapters of the narrative. Try Geniverse now and learn how fun (and educational) dragons can be!

The real genes of Geniverse

Did you know that while dragons and their model species drakes are fictional and fanciful, the genetics of these virtual Geniverse creatures is based firmly on the real-world genetics of model organisms?

The drake genes and traits have been carefully compiled from the actual genes and associated traits of the anole lizard, mouse, fruit fly, zebrafish, and other model species. The genes for forelimbs, wings, color, and other drake traits are genes that are involved in the development of those traits in real organisms. There’s real biology behind the Geniverse narrative as well: the disease that plagues our hero’s dragon friend is modeled on a rare human metabolic disorder, ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency. In fact, since the genes of humans are similar to the genes of the model organisms we use in real life—that’s why we can learn so much about human genetics from them—the genes of the Geniverse drakes are quite similar to human genes.

In addition, the interactive models that students use to conduct virtual experiments in Geniverse are powered by genetics programming that accurately simulates real-life patterns of inheritance in humans as well as model organisms. Students who learn with Geniverse are learning to analyze experimental results that would be obtained from these genes in a laboratory.

Nomenclature Genomic Location
Symbol w Chromosome 1
Name wingless Linkage map 70 cM
Species Dracomimus familiaris Genome coordinates unknown


Summary information
Phenotype: The wingless gene affects wing development in drakes. Homozygotes for the wingless allele (w/w) lack externally visible wings entirely. The skeleton of wingless drakes has a vestigial dorsal shoulder and a remnant of the proximal wing bone. Note: This gene and phenotype are taken from the fruit fly, d. Melanogaster, and the human correlate gene, called Wnt1, is 80% similar to the wingless DNA sequence.
W/W or W/w w/w


Alleles and Phenotypes
Allele Summary
W Presumptive wild-type allele
w Recessive allele
Genotype Phenotype
W/W Normal wings
W/w Normal wings
w/w wingless


Nomenclature Genomic Location
Symbol Wnt1 Chromosome 1
Name Proto-oncogene Wnt-1 Linkage map unknown
Species Dracomimus familiaris Genome Coordinates 1: 70 Mbp

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students are utilizing bioinformatics tools to build new drake genes, mutant alleles, and phenotypes based on investigations of the scientific literature. In an exploration of multiple genetic mechanisms, students have created drakes whose genotypes give rise to deafness and dwarfism, cancer and cold tolerance, polydactyly, and the ability to spit spider silk. We’re thrilled to see these additions to our drake genome!