CRISPR Newest Role - TV Star

By Julianna LeMieux — Oct 30, 2016
Don't be fooled by the rocks that she's got: Jennifer Lopez is just your average, everyday molecular biologist. Or, at least, she might be if a new TV show continues moving through the production pipeline at NBC. Her co-star will be a technique called CRISPR that has the ability to edit the genes in our DNA in a truly revolutionary way. 

Don't be fooled by the rocks that she's got - Jennifer Lopez is just your average, everyday molecular biologist. 

Or, at least, she might be if a new TV show continues moving through the production pipeline at NBC. In addition to gorgeous actors, another star of the show will be a molecular biology technique called CRISPR (you can find a description of the mechanism I wrote earlier this year here) that has the ability to edit the genes in our DNA in a truly revolutionary way. 

The Hollywood Reporter claims (and its not every day that I get to quote the Hollywood Reporter, so let me have my fun....) that "each episode will explore a bio-attack and crime — from a genetic assassination attempt on the president to the framing of an unborn child for murder. The show's central character is a scientist with the CDC who is paired with an FBI agent. In the same vein of Castle, romance will blossom between the scientist and the FBI agent as they team to bring down a diabolical genius with a twisted God complex: her former boss. The drama will see mentor and protégé battle for control over the human genome in a game of cat and mouse in which the future of our species may rest and all disease could one day be eradicated." 

CRISPR has already become somewhat of a household word because of the buzz around the promise that it holds in creating new therapies for disease. One of the reasons that CRISPR is so exciting to scientists - and NBC executives, presumably - is its seemingly limitless applications. CRISPR's precision makes it realistic to think that, after some long hours spent tweaking the technique in labs, it will actually be able to be used for altering genes that cause cancer. Or, removing the HIV genome from someone's T cells. Or, curing someone of cystic fibrosis by exchanging a mutated copy of the CFTR gene with a non-mutated one. Or, altering a baby's genome so that it is not blind, or short, or has dyslexia. The list goes about as high as one's imagination - which is limitless. And, because CRISPR is incredibly accurate, inexpensive, and relatively easy to do, it easy to let the mind wander into other changes that could be made to humans, or any living organism for that matter. 

Needless to say, it is unusual for a molecular biology technique to have scientists and screenwriters excited. And, that creates a bit of a complication for the writers at NBC. Will they go more science fiction with their storylines? If so, do they have a responsibility to create storylines that are scientifically plausible? 

There are many examples of science being handled well on the screen. Scientists regard 'Contagion' as highly accurate. Take, for example, the scene when a very ordinary looking Kate Winslet stands in front of a white board and explains R naught to a room of government officials. From the unflattering fluorescent lighting to her drab clothing (her condescending tone is the icing on the cake) - now that is realistic! 

There are other movies that are lauded for their scientific accuracy - 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, is considered to lead the pack in scientific reality. Stanley Kubrick was obsessive, they say, about understanding space travel and made a film that not only reflected the possible reality of it but predicted much of the technology in use today. 

Finding Nemo's scientific accuracy was written about in Nature, and the extreme measures that the creators took to portray the marine environment of a coral reef accurately. In A Beautiful Mind, they used a mathematician's hand to write out the equations so that they would look like they were at the hand of a mathematical genius - not Russell Crowe.

But, what about when the science is not on point? Unfortunately, there are many, many more examples of that. NASA found 169 mistakes in Armageddon. If viruses spread as quickly as they did in Outbreak, we would all be dead from any virus that has the ability to kill people. And, most scientists cannot even watch Mission to Mars, due to the scene when they hold up DNA and claim "that DNA looks human." Groan. 

But, is having bad science portrayed in entertainment harmful? Well, if you take the fact that 41% of Americans think that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, I think that its safe to point some fingers at Jurassic Park (and, maybe a few other fingers at the failing science education in this country.) 

Dr. Jennifer Doudna, the co-discoverer of CRISPR said in response to this TV show, "CRISPR is powerful and profound technology that can help us positively impact human life. It is important to introduce it to the public and characterize it correctly but we must remember that this show is dramatized science fiction." 

As someone who spends most of her time working to dispel scientific inaccuracies, my hope is that the creative team at NBC will keep the science in line with reality. Even in a fictional setting, the science can remain scientifically plausible. Otherwise, the show will be propagating bad scientific information. Which, take it from me, is very hard to make right. 


A conflict of interest declaration

1) An executive producer on the show, Anthony Cipriano, is not only someone I went to high school with, but was my prom date. 

2) I did not have to declare that, but absolutely could not resist.