A scientist in China has dominated headlines this week with the claim that his research team has successfully created the world’s first genetically-edited babies. If true, the experiment raises a lot of difficult ethical questions—ones that mainstream films and TV shows have been exploring for decades.
The topic of genetic engineering is so prevalent in pop culture that it’s practically a genre unto itself. At the heart of these science fiction depictions is the issue of whether the benefits of genetic engineering—that is, potentially curing diseases—outweigh the colossal risks, which range from eugenics to unintended mutations.
If Hollywood’s take on the matter is any indication, scientists should probably hold off on attempting to modify unborn human genomes until we’re sure it’s safe. Here are just a few examples that demonstrate how gene-editing experiments tend to result in plagues, genocides, general super-villainy actions, and other such dystopian nightmares.
Crispr in fiction
The sci-fi monster movie released earlier this year was notable for a reason other than the spectacle of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson teaming up with a giant gorilla to save the world—it mentioned Crispr by name. In the film, a genetic engineer’s Crispr research is stolen by a shadowy organization that uses it as a biological weapon, which creates a pathogen that results in large mutant animals destroying everything in their paths.
Rampage‘s premise is utterly nonsensical—Crispr cannot be used to build hundred-feet-tall wolves. But it does underscore the fact that gene-editing tools can be used for nefarious purposes.
While the Marvel comics explain that Carl Lucas became the superhero Luke Cage via the super-soldier process (the same one that created Captain America), the Netflix series based on the character updated his origins for 2018. In the series, a scientist uses Crispr to fuse Lucas’ DNA with that of an abalone to give the man superhuman strength and unbreakable skin.
Scientists are not close to being able to do anything like that successfully. But, in theory, Crispr could eventually be used in a similar fashion to target strings of human DNA, remove them, and replace them with the DNA of another organism.
The Jennifer Lopez project at NBC
In 2016, news broke that NBC was working with Jennifer Lopez on a procedural thriller series called—no joke—C.R.I.S.P.R. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show was to follow an FBI agent who teams with a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to stop bio-attacks and DNA hacking, “from a genetic assassination attempt on the president to the framing of an unborn child for murder.”
The show hasn’t been made, and its status is unclear (Quartz reached out to NBC for an update). But the sheer notion that a major American network would consider airing a TV series precisely about (and named after!) the breakthrough technology shows that it’s becoming serious fodder for filmmakers.
The 10th season finale of The X-Files, “My Struggle II,” featured a Crispr plot line—except this time it was used on humans by aliens in an attempt to wipe out Earth’s population. The aliens created a virus that contains the code for Crispr, which eliminates an enzyme crucial for humans’ immune function. Only select humans who have some alien DNA (including Sully) are capable of surviving the virus. Clever aliens.
It wasn’t the first time that the renowned sci-fi series explored genetic engineering, but it was its first mention of Crispr. And for any emerging technology, a mention on The X-Files is almost a rite of passage.
Netflix has optioned the rights to Daniel Suarez’s novel Change Agent, which takes place in a future where Crispr has become an everyday tool of society. It’s possible the series will never get made, as Netflix and other networks option a lot of books without ever actually adapting them for TV. But clearly Crispr is very much on Hollywood’s radar.
TV Tropes, a vast resource that catalogs every theme, cliché, and trend in entertainment, includes an entire category for what it calls LEGO Genetics. “With LEGO Genetics, you can fiddle with DNA wherever you like, intentionally or accidentally, and all the cells will change overnight (if that),” the site outlines. “Just wake up and presto! Wings! Fur! Gills! Hulking muscles! Giant brain! Stem cells!”
It’s one of the most common tropes in the history of sci-fi. Many of the films and TV shows featuring LEGO genetics came before Crispr was created, and now that it’s been used in the creation of humans, expect it to become an even bigger part of the science fiction canon. Until then, we’ll always have these stories of gene-editing run amok to fall back on:
- Planet of the Apes
- I Am Legend
- Spider-Man trilogy
- The Hulk
- Star Trek
- Jurassic Park
- Man of Steel
- Doctor Who
- Beauty and the Beast (2012)
- Die Another Day
- Blade Runner
- The Matrix
- Demolition Man