With luck, you may soon be able to buy a mythological pet
2006 04 01
PAOLO FRIL, chairman and chief scientific officer of GeneDupe, based in San Melito, California, is a man with a dream. That dream is a dragon in every home.
GeneDupe's business is biotech pets. Not for Dr Fril, though, the mundane cloning of dead moggies and pooches. He plans a range of entirely new animals—or, rather, of really quite old animals, with the twist that even when they did exist, it was only in the imagination.
Making a mythical creature real is not easy. But GeneDupe's team of biologists and computer scientists reckon they are equal to the task. Their secret is a new field, which they call “virtual cell biology”.
Biology and computing have a lot in common, since both are about processing information—in one case electronic; in the other, biochemical. Virtual cell biology aspires to make a software model of a cell that is accurate in every biochemical detail. That is possible because all animal cells use the same parts list—mitochondria for energy processing, the endoplasmic reticulum for making proteins, Golgi body for protein assembly, and so on.
Armed with their virtual cell, GeneDupe's scientists can customise the result so that it belongs to a particular species, by loading it with a virtual copy of that animal's genome. Then, if the cell is also loaded with the right virtual molecules, it will behave like a fertilised egg, and start dividing and developing—first into an embryo, and ultimately into an adult.
Because this “growth” is going on in a computer, it happens fast. Passing from egg to adult in one of GeneDupe's enormous Mythmaker computers takes less than a minute. And it is here that Charles Darwin gets a look in. With such a short generation time, GeneDupe's scientists can add a little evolution to their products.
Each computer starts with a search image (dragon, unicorn, gryphon, etc), and the genome of the real animal most closely resembling it (a lizard for the dragon, a horse for the unicorn and, most taxingly, the spliced genomes of a lion and an eagle for the gryphon). The virtual genomes of these real animals are then tweaked by random electronic mutations. When they have matured, the virtual adults most closely resembling the targets are picked and cross-bred, while the others are culled.
Using this rapid evolutionary process, GeneDupe's scientists have arrived at genomes for a range of mythological creatures—in a computer, at least. The next stage, on which they are just embarking, is to do it for real.
This involves synthesising, with actual DNA, the genetic material that the computer models predict will produce the mythical creatures. The synthetic DNA is then inserted into a cell that has had its natural nucleus removed. The result, Dr Fril and his commercial backers hope, will be a real live dragon, unicorn or what have you.
Readers with long memories may recall GeneDupe's previous attempt to break into the pet market, the Real Goldfish (see article). This animal was genetically engineered to deposit gold in its skin cells, for that truly million-dollar look. Unfortunately Dr Fril, a biologist, neglected to think about the physics involved. The fish, weighed down by one of the heaviest metals in existence, sank like a stone, as did the project. He is more confident about his new idea, though. Indeed, if he can get the dragons' respiration correct, he thinks they will set the world on fire.
Article from: http://www.economist.com/science/
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