Posted on behalf of Sara Reardon
“Welcome back, you two,” says assistant FBI director to Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. He unlocks the door to Mulder’s old pencil-strewn office. The iconic I WANT TO BELIEVE poster lies crumpled on the floor.
We agree. After nearly 15 years, FOX rebooted the X-Files for a six-episode season that wrapped up last week. The technological advances of the past decade and a half, CRISPR included, gave the writers a raft of new ideas for its supernatural plots. DNA sequencing can be done in hours. People snap pictures of close encounters on their smartphones. Mulder’s ringtone, hilariously, is the X-Files theme song. Now the internet provides a platform for conspiracy theorists and the ill-informed to spread misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, genetically modified crops and gluten. (Spoilers aplenty to follow).
The new season takes full advantage. It opens with an internet personality who has become rich off his conspiracy theory videos. He wants Mulder and Scully to investigate a young woman who claims to have been injected with “alien DNA.” Scully, who was abducted in the show’s second season, finds similar DNA in her own cheek swab.
The scientific dialogue is laughable jargon jazz. But the concepts involve cutting-edge research. Alien DNA, for example, was floated in the first season in 1993, explains the series’ science advisor Anne Simon, a virologist at the University of Maryland. Back then, Mulder & Scully found a bacterium with six different letters in its DNA code rather than the usual four,
Since then, such DNA has actually been made. In 2014, researchers at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California created the first cell that survived with two synthetic bases. These bases expand the number of possible DNA codes by orders of magnitude.
Other advances that the show predicted long ago have also become reality. In the second episode of the new series, the agents investigate a doctor, nicknamed ‘The Founder’, who purportedly studies children with rare genetic diseases – real conditions, cartoonishly amplified for the show. He’s been altering these babies’ DNA.
The title of the episode is Founders’ Mutation. This is a concept in evolutionary biology when an individual’s mutation spreads through all of its descendants, eventually creating a novel group of organisms. Explaining the idea, Scully gives a shoutout to a 2015 paper in Nature Communications, which suggests that most European men descended from just three men.
Indeed it is human genome editing that forms the season’s backbone: a concept that is far more scientifically plausible today than it was in 2001 — or even 2012. The CRISPR/Cas9 system, which makes precise snips in DNA, is revolutionizing agriculture, basic research, and medicine. Two groups of scientists, one at the Broad Institute in Boston and one at the University of California Berkeley, are battling over which owns the technology’s patent.
That patent, Simon jokes, should belong to the aliens.
Alien DNA is an antidote to the Spartan virus (which Simon and the writers invented for the show) that lives in us all, the story goes. Scully and a few other lucky people who have the alien DNA will presumably be able to survive the coming apocalypse. The Spartan virus was created by aliens and integrates into the human genome. For reasons yet to be revealed, a secretive cabal spread the virus through the smallpox vaccine over decades. It entered the germline and was passed on to children who never received the vaccine after 1972 when it stopped being administered.
The virus contains the code for CRISPR and the enzyme Cas9. It spreads through the body and snips at the gene for adenosine deaminase: an enzyme essential for immune function. When the virus is activated through ions spread in aeroplanes’ vapour trails– yes, the chemtrail conspiracy theory — the CRISPR system begins destroying immune systems. Soon, everyone, including Mulder, is dying of simple diseases.
Scully buys some time by making a vaccine from her alien DNA, which she believes encodes a way to inhibit Cas9. The season, as always, ends on a cliffhanger – hospitals overrun with dying people, panic in the streets and traffic stalled on bridges across the Potomac River. We have to wait for next season to find out the purpose of the alien DNA, Simon says.
As someone nearly as obsessed with CRISPR as Mulder is with alien encounters, it’s fun to see Scully and a new protégé geeking out over it and amusing when Scully dramatically intones, “I want you to do a PCR.” The genome-editing-as-bioweapon storyline is intriguing, but it’s unclear where it’s going to make judgement. And, as always, one must look past the made-for-TV compromises: the insta-vaccine for instance.
Simon doubts that the episode will fuel fears of CRISPR. “It’s just a tool,” she says. In fact, when director Chris Carter asked her to create a world-destroying technology, she took care to avoid stoking real fears. GMOs and common vaccines were right out. She settled on the smallpox vaccine because it hasn’t been routinely given since 1972. And relegating vaccination conspiracies to the same level as aliens and chemtrails might even be helpful.
She does hope that the entrance of CRISPR into popular culture will stimulate discussion of its many applications and ethical ramifications, primarily those involving editing humans. “I think we have to be careful about modifying the human germline because we don’t know what we’re doing,” Simon says. The public, not just those who wield the technology, should be crucial players in making such decisions.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.