March 15, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
CRISPR is a way of changing and replacing parts of DNA using enzymes like a pair of molecular scissors (of course things are more complex than this!). This new technology for ‘editing’ DNA, genes or genomes began to attract public attention between around 2012 and 2015. When I started to write about metaphors used to make CRISPR public (for example, here and here and here), in around 2015/16, I was surprised by how little resonance CRISPR and gene editing seemed to have in wider culture (which was, one has to admit, just then engulfed by other major preoccupations). This was, I thought, quite different compared to what happened during the emergence of, say, cloning or nanobiotechnology, which caused something of a cultural ‘effervescence’ after 1997 and after about 2003 respectively, with lots of stories and images circulating widely.
I was somewhat surprised, as I had not regarded A Crack in Creation (Doudna and Sternberg, 2017) as a novel, despite the use of some fictional characters, such as unicorns. And Modern Prometheus (Kozubek, 2016) was not a novel by Mary Shelley. These two books are written by scientists/science writers not novelists. They deal with reality, not fiction and I have written about them here and here.
I then searched for ‘CRISPR scifi’. That proved more fruitful. I found a very useful webpage on CRISPR in movies and on TV. I’ll come back to movies in a minute. I also asked on Twitter whether people knew of some CRISPR inspired novels. At first, people were a bit stumped, but then I got a few hints.
There seems to be one real CRISPR thriller, namely Change Agent, by Daniel Suarez (2017). As one preview said: “It’s a sci-fi thriller about a topic few non-nerds would normally consider thrilling: Crispr (short for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’).” It engages with the science, summarised on the first few pages, as well as with upcoming ethical dilemmas, also flagged up, in a relatively unsubtle way, on the first few pages. Here goes:
We are introduced to a couple trying to produce a genome edited child. They talk to a counsellor: “The husband again placed his hand on her knee. She shook her head. ‘It seems against Nature.’ The counselor spoke softly. ‘This is the very same process Nature follows to eliminate viral DANA in bacteria. The same process used under the UN’s Treaty on Genetic modification.’ ‘Yes, but to cure deadly genetic defects, not to tailor-make a child.’ The husband shook his head. ‘We are not tailoring our child. We are correcting genetic weaknesses. Is not a weak memory fatal to a future doctor or attorney?’ ‘Where does this sort of thinking lead us, Neelo – eugenics?'” And so on…
Other novels mentioned by my Twitter correspondents were: Helix by Marc Elsberg and Intrusion by Ken MacLeod. There are probably more out there. Netflix is currently looking into turning Change Agent into a movie.
Many movies have dealt with genetic engineering, and some are listed on the webpage I mentioned above, such as GATTACA, of course. However, it seems that only one movie so far has taken up the CRISPR challenge directly, and this is Rampage (2018), directed by Bad Peyton. There is also a TV Show Luke Cage (2016-present), which engages with CRISPR and, the, perhaps better-known, series Orphan Black (2013-2017).
Many of these movies and series pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and personhood. However, there is also the temptation of using facile ‘TV tropes’, one of which is called, by some observers, ‘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). Just wake up and presto! Wings! Fur! Gills! Hulking muscles! Giant brain! Stem cells! You don’t even have to eat the equivalent of your entire body mass to create all those new body parts; the old cells and the new ones are just cobbled together like LEGO bricks.”
Audiences, players, consumers etc. will probably be well aware of such tropes and know how to deal with them; and if they are not, there are fictional characters that tell them how to. For instance, Prokhor Zakharov, a character in a computer game, says: “”Remember, genes are NOT blueprints. This means you can’t, for example, insert ‘the genes for an elephant’s trunk’ into a giraffe and get a giraffe with a trunk. There are no genes for trunks. What you can do with genes is chemistry, since DNA codes for chemicals. For instance, we can in theory splice the native plants’ talent for nitrogen fixation into a terran plant.”
Before exploring documentaries, where one would expect such lessons, I have to mention, of course, Captain Marvel – with her marvellous superpowers… Here is a great blog post about Marvel and CRISPR. I only quote one paragraph: “Films about the Marvel universe are all the rage right now, showing off characters with truly amazing abilities that humans can only dream of having. The introduction of the CRISPR gene editing technology has left people wondering if they could gain ‘superhuman’ powers. From a scientific standpoint, CRISPR researchers have made it quite clear that the scientific community does not support creating humans with enhanced abilities. ‘The talk about designer babies is ultimately a big distraction,’ says Carl Zimmer, science journalist and award-winning New York Times columnist.”
Well said! We all welcome debate, but the debate should at least be well-informed. Can documentaries provide that information?
A feature documentary about CRISPR was released on 10 March called “Human Nature”, and other documentaries are in production. Grant Jacobs wrote a quick blog post about it and points out that: “The film features a star cast of scientists working on genome editing. Alongside them are experts representing law, bioethics, environmental and commercial interests. The listed cast includes Jill Banfield, David Baltimore, Rodolphe Barrangou, Alta Charo, George Church, Jennifer Doudna, Antonio Regalado, Fyodor Urnov, Luhan Yang, and Feng Zhang. (If I had a criticism, it’d be that the cast is very USA-oriented, but then it’s produced in the USA.)”.
Watch the trailer! I haven’t seen the documentary, but some say it strikes a good balance: “It’s hopeful about CRISPR’s ability to help us fix diseases that have plagued humans for millennia, while also questioning if we’re ready to make genetic changes that’ll affect us for generations to come.” (see also here)
One of the more gang-ho voices heard in the documentary is George Church. If you want to know more about his views, you can look at this interesting piece entitled “Five conversations with biology’s Captain Marvel, George Church”! The subtitle of the article brings us back to LEGO genetics: “When it comes to tinkering with the stuff of life, George Church is the equivalent of a Lego master builder.”
CRISPR and popular science writing
Nessa Carey has just published a popular science book that brings the CRISPR story up to date (after Modern Prometheus, 2016, and Crack in Creation, 2017). She uses more conventional metaphors in her book title: Hacking the Code of Life: How gene editing will rewrite our futures (2019). Having just read the book, I can say that Carey uses the hacking metaphor really creatively in the book to draw readers in and hook them. If you want to be well-informed and ready to debate CRISPR knowledgeably, this book is a great start.
Of course, popular science writing doesn’t only happen in books. Au contraire! One should also look at newspapers, podcasts, blogs, journals, twitter and more! …
And finally, there is also CRISPR inspired bio-art, some of which has been surveyed in this blog post under the title “Who is afraid of CRISPR art?”. There is an article in Nature entitled: “Love, death and CRISPR: An artwork”. There is also an artwork that I actually saw, by Anna Dumitriu, and an article on CRISPR art I couldn’t see in The Crispr Journal. I bet there is more….
CRISPR the board game
And, before I forget, there is even a board game based on CRISPR on the horizon! “Players are members of a team whose missions entail delivering specific CRISPR-edited products to users. To succeed, players must: solve puzzles; communicate about their work to indispensible [sic] support professionals and the public; overcome obstacles; foil would-be underminers; and recover from setbacks. See more detailed game features here.”
Discussions about CRISPR, like discussions about cloning or stem cells for example, happen against a well-established cultural horizon. When studying the issue of ‘designer’ or ‘donor’ babies in the year 2000, I called this ‘cultural precognition.
I pointed out that new developments in genetics throw up fresh ethical questions almost every day. Doctors, scientists, policy makers, the media and the public are ill-equipped to find answers to these questions on scientific, legal or moral principles alone. They therefore often take recourse to metaphors and narratives to fill this ethical void. Popular culture talks about space-rockets before there are space-rockets, clones before there are clones and artificially created babies before there are artificially created babies. When scientists do anything new, there is often a ready-made public perception of how good or how bad it is going to be, derived from social, linguistic, literary and cultural preconceptions.
So, when genetically edited or ‘crispred’ babies happened (if indeed they did), I was not surprised to find the following observation about popular culture in the context of Rampage, Change Agent etc: “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.”
A sub-genre of the genetic engineering genre is ‘biopunk’, to which some of the CRISPR movies and novels belong. I bet there will be more biopunk in the future. Another cultural tradition that holds a mirror to science and society and there to be explored.
Keeping an eye on CRISPR culture
Future work on the language and culture of gene editing should chart changes and shifts in social and cultural perceptions of genome editing over the last two decades or so from around 1998 (Dolly, BSE, GM, stem cells etc.) to now. Such a diachronic analysis could be based on comparing two books, published twenty years apart.
In 1998 José van Dijck published a book entitled Imagenation: Popular images of genetics, in which she explored the crucial role that cultural images played in the popularisation of genetic knowledge, especially cloning.
In 2017 Everett Hamner published a book entitled Editing the Soul, in which he stresses that we need to pay attention to the “cultural mythologies” by which we frame our public debates about genome editing. The stories we tell are shaped by science and culture alike, including the metaphors created by scientists themselves: “We should consider carefully how these mutual narratives double back and colonize the research and applications that find private and public financing.”
Science always happens against an established cultural horizon, but it also feeds into and transforms it. This then also changes social and ethical perceptions and actions. If ever we manage to establish something like a ‘global observatory for gene editing’ (a rather ambitious project!), this needs to include the observation of cultural developments! Only then can we grapple with ‘public engagement’ in a well-informed way.
Acknowledgement: I’d like to thank the second referee of an article for making me dig deeper into the cultural ramifications of CRISPR!