When David Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, saw for the first time the progress of Dwayne's latest film "The Rock" Johnson, Rampage, he rolled his eyes. Liu has been working with the CRISPR gene editing tool for about six years, developing a gene therapy that could one day treat human hearing loss, among other things. In Rampage, a CRISPR dishonest experiment is responsible for turning a gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile into huge and wild monsters. When Liu saw the trailer in a movie theater, he chuckled and said loudly: "Really?"
Yes really. Rampage is a silly action movie that features incredibly indestructible monsters, an equally indestructible Dwayne Johnson and several mentions of CRISPR. Although some scientists like Liu are excited to see Hollywood have the innovative technology they work with every day, others are concerned that inaccurate representations in films like Rampage give people who are not familiar with CRISPR the wrong idea of what technology is capable of doing. (One caveat: none of the people I interviewed for this story have seen Rampage, some plan to do it, others are not so sure. "I do not know if it would make me angry," says Mitchell O'Connell, an assistant professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester.)
CRISPR can not be used to turn wolves into giant flying monsters
First of all, let's get rid of all this: CRISPR can not be used to turn wolves into giant flying monsters that can shoot porcupine thorns into their tails. It can be used to accurately edit DNA, and scientists are trying to design the technology to cure some of the most horrible diseases that exist, such as cancer and sickle cell anemia. But the whole premise of the film, that some kind of armed CRISPR brew can infect animals and change their bodies, as well as their behavior, is incredibly far-fetched. There are too many genes, many of them unknown, that influence traits such as the size and shape of the body, and there is currently no way to simultaneously edit hundreds of thousands of genes throughout the body, says Liu to The Verge.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
"There will never be, because it is biologically impossible, a simple single-dose form to make an animal suddenly sprout wings or become huge and aggressive or become King Kong," he says.
But what happens if a movie viewer has never heard of CRISPR? Rampage begins with the following documentary style statements: "In 1993, a revolutionary new technology, known as CRISPR, provided scientists with a pathway to treat incurable diseases through genetic editing." In 2016, due to its potential for misuse , the US Intelligence Community designated the genetic edition as "Weapon of mass destruction and proliferation." Although the latter is accurate, the scientists did not use CRISPR to edit the DNA in 1993, it was not even called CRISPR until much later. Later, STAT reports, everything that follows that title screen is total science fiction.
Writers are certainly aware of that, everything in the film is exaggerated, but studies have shown that film and television can affect our perception of science. Research in the 1980s, for example, showed that the more people on television watched, the less they thought about science, possibly because scientists have historically been seen as villains. Since then, media representation has improved, says Dietram Scheufele, an expert in scientific communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is due in part to programs like the Science & Entertainment Exchange, created in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences to "propel Hollywood beyond the boring stereotype of the evil scientist," says Megan Hochstrasser, manager of scientific communications at Innovative Genomics. Institute.
"The terrifying and ridiculous representations of science are still omnipresent."
Still, there is a lot of work to be done. "The terrifying and ridiculous representations of science are still ubiquitous," Hochstrasser told The Verge in an email. Most scientific research is carried out in universities, not in secret cellars and warehouses, and scientists "generally earn a fairly low salary" and are motivated mainly by "the desire to make the world a better place," she says. . But the stereotypes are profound: Scheufele says that when he asks his students -some of them in STEM fields- for five words to describe a scientist, those five words are usually "masculine", "white", "old", " crazy hair, "" and "glasses." Or, as Scheufele says, a mix between Bill Nye and Doc from Back to the Future. (That's also typical of how children represent scientists when they're asked to draw one) .
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Movies often also exaggerate the power of technology for a dramatic effect, whether scientists use nuclear weapons to activate the Earth's magnetic field in The Core, creating clones with genetic memories of their DNA donors in Alien 3, or turning collected blood cells into living dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park Films. This is why O & # 39; Connell says he was not surprised to finally see a movie with CRISPR. "I guess it was only a matter of time," he tells The Verge. "Hollywood loves to jump on new and potentially terrifying technologies."
Hollywood is not only to blame, either. In an episode of the X-Files of 2016, aliens use CRISPR to destroy the human immune system, which kills them quickly. On the contrary, the associate director of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of Altius, Fyodor Urnov, spent years trying to develop a therapy for people born without immune systems. "For me, there was a profound, moving, almost painful irony that this technology is on television, and what is it used for? It is used by an alien conspiracy to make people immunodeficient," says Urnov.
O Connell is concerned that Rampage audiences who do not know what CRISPR is can misinterpret what technology can do. "The film is trying to be ironic, but it assumes that people understand the joke, I do not think most people do it," he says. Urnov, who has worked on gene editing for more than a decade, has similar concerns, especially about the X-Files episode. "The fact that biotechnology is a force for evil and a tool for villains is a concern," he tells The Verge. "Because in today's real world, biotechnology can be and is a force of tremendous good."
In China, doctors are using CRISPR to edit the immune cells of a patient with lung cancer, to help him overcome the disease. In the United States, a different technique is being used to try to edit a man's DNA and cure him of a genetic disorder called Hunter's syndrome. The technology is also being used to create cheap diagnostics to detect infections such as HPV, dengue and Zika. That's why when CRISPR is used in films to genetically transform crocodiles into huge, wild creatures, that is overlooked, says Urnov.
"The fact that biotechnology is a force for evil and a tool for villains, that's a concern."
But Scheufele says the scientific community tends to worry too much about how movies and other media shape people's perception of technology. In the early 2000s, when Michael Crichton published the book Prey, about a swarm of nanobots that seized the world, some in the scientific community were "going crazy," says Scheufele. But the book, as well as Prince Charles's call for British scientists to analyze the "enormous environmental and social risks" of nanotechnology, did not end up turning public opinion against technology based on apocalyptic scenarios. In fact, scientists were more concerned than the public about how nanotechnology could affect health and the environment, according to a study published by Scheufele in 2007.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
A movie is not going to turn people against CRISPR, says Scheufele. But if more films begin to show the editing of genes as a tool for mass destruction, the scientific community might have a problem. For now, however, a movie like Rampage could actually do something good; could allow more people to know that CRISPR exists. "It's a great thing if emerging science is discussed in entertainment media," he says. "In fact, it's a great way to reach an audience." Liu agrees, as long as the film's viewers realize that what they're watching is fiction and not fiction.
"In a way, it's flattering that Hollywood is interested in CRISPR technology enough to make it the premise of a movie," says Liu. It's even more flattering for scientists who are fans of the people in those movies. "If The Rock is really interested in learning more about CRISPR, you can tell him to contact me," adds Liu. "I'm happy to give you a CRISPR conference."