Tag Archives: drake

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.

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!