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Domesticating Dragons: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, November 6, 2020 21:47 EST




    Name: Simon Redwood

    Companies Founded: 13

    Claim to Fame: The Dragon Genome Project

    Current Venture: Reptilian Corporation,

    a genetic engineering firm.

    Many successful businesses arise to address a real-world problem. In the case of Reptilian Corporation, that problem was hogs.

    Feral hogs are the descendants of domestic hogs that escaped (or were released intentionally) from captivity. Most forms of livestock depend on humans for food and protection, and don’t last long in the wild. Not so with feral hogs. They don’t simply survive in the wild. They thrive.

    A feral sow breeds once or twice a year, producing a litter of four to six young. They can eat about anything–grasses, roots, mushrooms, acorns–but given the choice, they prefer domesticated crops. Corn, rice, and soybeans are particular favorites. A pack of feral hogs (called a sounder) can wipe out a two-acre farm field overnight.

    An Invasive Species

    With each generation, feral hogs develop longer hair, larger tusks, and other traits that help them survive in the wild. A fully grown adult animal weighs a hundred pounds and has no natural predators. As recently as a decade ago, feral hog populations were growing virtually unchecked in the southwestern United States. They drove out natural species, destroyed grazing grounds vital to ranchers, and devoured entire farm fields. Ironically, the species that we bred as livestock made food more expensive.

    Five years ago, a thousand scientists, ranchers, and wildlife experts convened in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss the hog crisis. Everyone agreed on one thing right off the bat: the methods tried so far weren’t working.

    Feral hogs are nocturnal, and their incredible sensory perception–especially smell and hearing–helps them avoid humans during daylight hours. They hole up in the most unforgiving of environments, like swamps and briar patches, that most humans can’t get to. These behaviors have frustrated would-be hunters and trappers, who make only a small dent in feral hog populations.

    The Redwood Solution

    Simon Redwood is no stranger to tough problems. The eccentric, wild-haired inventor has often proposed unconventional–if not entirely successful–solutions to some of our world’s most daunting scientific challenges. Solutions like SolarMesh, the roll-up solar panel system that brought power to much of the Caribbean after last year’s devastating hurricane season. And no one will forget MedicFT, the medical triage robot that Redwood claimed would replace the modern emergency room.

    It isn’t clear who invited him to the convention in Phoenix, but he got five minutes on the podium, and made them count.

    “The only way to effectively control hog populations is the introduction of a new predator,” he said. “A synthetic organism designed to hunt feral pigs in the wild.”

    Many in the audience uttered a groan. Synthetic biology was an often-maligned branch of the life sciences. Synthetic biologists had thus far developed single-cell organisms, like bacteria and brewer’s yeast. Efforts to make larger, more complex animals always failed.

    The creature that Redwood proposed was a new level of ambitious. A carnivorous reptile with a lizard’s claws, an alligator’s teeth, and a taste for “the other white meat.” Few in that convention hall in Phoenix believed that it would succeed, but all of them were desperate. And no one had any better ideas.

    The Dragon Genome

    The first step to reach Redwood’s vision was to create a genome sequence for this so-called reptilian predator. Even with advances in DNA sequencing, the cost of this endeavor went considerably beyond what the farmers and ranchers could provide. Given the agricultural industry’s lobbying power and their keen interest in addressing the feral hog outbreak, Redwood felt certain that the funds could be had to undertake this venture. He didn’t name his campaign the “Synthetic Reptilian Predator Design” fundraiser. Nobody would back such a thing. Instead, he proclaimed it the Dragon Genome Project.

    Dragons have captivated human imagination for millennia. They’ve also inspired a certain primal fear. Wouldn’t it be incredible to bring that myth to life? A two-minute video posing that question appeared online at the start of the fundraiser. It had to be faked–clips of dragons living in the wild, feeding their young, and casting long terrible shadows across the path of fleeing gazelle–but it was, in a word, majestic. Robert Greaves never formally admitted to creating it. But he never denied it, either. In an era when crowdfunding campaigns seem to be everywhere–and often fail to attract any donors whatsoever–the DGP met its goals within three weeks. Part of that was simply Redwood’s name. It’s no secret that he enjoys support from legions of fellow dreamers. And funders as well: Angel investors have been betting on his ideas for years.

    Of course, the idea of creating a synthetic animal raised ethical concerns. Environmental groups threw a fit about it, and made fairly cogent arguments about the possible dangers, and the ecosystem impacts. The public seemed to pay little attention. The magic of dragons was simply too strong. By the time the project funded, Redwood’s scientific endeavor already had tacit approval from the EPA. They wanted the hog problem addressed as much as anyone.

    With the financing secured, Redwood’s team began assembling the genome for his synthetic predator. As source organisms, they used sequences from various members of the animal kingdom. Reptiles, mostly, but some rodents as well. The dragon genome would be an amalgam of nature’s cleverest and most resourceful hunters.

    To Build A Dragon

    Fast forward a couple of years, and Simon Redwood’s dream seems well within reach. The so-called Dragon Genome specified a lizardlike creature about four feet long, with razor-sharp teeth and claws, whose circadian rhythms and night vision made it a nocturnal hunter. Its olfactory and taste receptors are fine-tuned to feral hogs, and the slender build lets it prowl the unforgiving habitats that they prefer.

    At least, that’s what the instructions said.

    Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not bend so easily to the whims of a synthetic genome. Try as they might, Redwood and his team could not get an egg to hatch. Feral hogs continued to plague the Southwest, and many of the farmers and ranchers who’d backed Redwood’s project from the get-go wondered if they’d made a mistake. The donors for the crowd-funded research project began grumbling about having their donations returned.

    Those were grim days for Simon Redwood. He disappeared into his private laboratory, working round the clock to crack the secret of bringing his creation to life. Six months later, he emerged once more, gaunt, emaciated, but triumphant. A clutch of “dragon” eggs appeared viable and was about to hatch.

    Hog Hunting

    Redwood’s reptilian predator was the answer to every rancher’s prayer. They proved adept nocturnal hunters and targeted only feral hogs, just as the inventor had promised. They were short-lived, too: thanks to a built-in amino acid deficiency, Redwood’s dragons only lasted for around ten days. Yet it was hard to argue with the results. At three designated test sites in the American Southwest, feral hog populations fell precipitously following the dragons’ release. Just as Redwood had predicted, a synthetic predator succeeded where so many others had failed.

    Following the success of early trials, Redwood built a company around the synthetic dragon design. The Dragon Genome might be public domain–that was a federal requirement for publicly-funded genome sequencing–but the aptly named Reptilian Corporation holds exclusive rights to the mysterious process that uses it to produce living reptiles. Admittedly, Redwood had little experience in the corporate sector himself. For help, he turned to an old friend who had been his roommate at Stanford.

    Robert Greaves, who had studied chemical engineering and then law, was then a VP at Bingham Pharmaceuticals. He left considerable stock options and a high-profile clinical trial behind to lead Redwood’s new venture. This looks to have been a fortuitous move. Ranchers, farmers, and even conservation agencies lined up to purchase the hog-hunting predator. Analysts estimate that Reptilian Corporation earned tens of millions of dollars in its first two years.

    Not everyone was happy with Reptilian’s success. Animal rights groups continued to protest the use of a predator as unnecessarily cruel. Environmental organizations raised concerns about possible ecological consequences. These complaints only intensified with reports of the reptiles living independently in the wild, claims which Greaves was quick to dismiss. He maintains that the reptilian predators can’t survive on their own for more than a couple of weeks, and that tests conducted by his team confirm that they are only targeting feral hogs.

    Though demand for the hog-hunting predator seems to have slowed, Reptilian Corporation has recruited some of the best genetic engineering talent in the country to build upon their early success. Greaves handles the day-to-day operations at the company, leaving Simon Redwood free to do what he does best.


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