CRISPR Eugenics in The X Files

Posted by Elliot Hosman on March 10th, 2016

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CRISPR-Cas9 “gene editing” has been a source of hype, hope, and caution for the past several years, and its presence in labs, patent fights, policy discussions, and headlines has grown exponentially.

But in the finale of The X Files’ comeback season, it is aliens who first harness genome editing. “CRISPR patent belongs to aliens,” Sara Reardon comically claims in the Nature books and arts blog A View From the Bridge. As she notes,

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 [around when The X Files went off-air] — or even 2012 [when CRISPR-Cas9 was developed as a genome editing platform].

In The X Files, the aliens use gene editing in the service of population control campaigns on other planets. In the real world, the range of potential CRISPR applications triggering social and ethical controversy includes

  1. human “germline” gene editing, i.e. creating modifications that will be passed down to future generations by engineering germ cells (gametes or embryos) prior to initiating a pregnancy — what the media sometimes call “designer babies” and
  2. climate change gene editing, i.e. attempting to alleviate the effects of anthropogenic global warming by modifying plants and animals, including drought-tolerant corn and soybeans and heat-tolerant cows.

Both of these brave-new-world applications come into play in the finale’s dystopian plot.

The Science of The X Files

The science in The X Files finale is discussed rather breathlessly, so for those who might have missed it:

In an earlier era of Roswell crash-landings and secretive extraterrestrial research, scientists discover that aliens had developed a “Spartan Virus” to “manage” overpopulation. At some point in the last century, motivated parties on earth co-opt this viral population-control method by creating a germline gene therapy to slip into mandatory smallpox vaccinations.

In real life, routine smallpox vaccination ended in the United States in 1972; in The X Files finale, regardless, the Spartan Virus continued to infiltrate the population for decades because everyone who was vaccinated passed on the CRISPR complex to future generations.  Fast-forward to 2016, and a prominent villain from earlier seasons has decided it’s time to activate the Spartan Virus in order to CRISPR-edit out a gene to turn off people’s immune systems. (The reference is to the adenosine deaminase (ADA) gene, which is associated with “bubble boy syndrome.”)

How does the villain activate this CRISPR mechanism? With chem trails of aluminum nanoparticles! The only way to survive? An elite cabal has exclusive access to a secret germline technique using alien DNA (literally) that disables CRISPR from editing out the ADA gene, thereby preserving immunity.

Some of the described or implied science here is pretty far-fetched, but some not so much. The time-delay germline engineering described in The X Files finale, for example, bears at least some similarity to the CRISPR complex recently reported [PDF] by the Stanley Qi Lab at Stanford University. In that study, a “dead Cas9” protein is used to regulate gene expression through activation or interference. This seems to suggest that it may be possible to design platforms like these, capable of being designed to hang out in the genome until sometime later (in The X Files’ case, decades), when they could be activated and begin to carry out programmed edits or regulatory activity.

The science of how CRISPR is delivered into living children and adults to affect their germ cells is not made clear in the finale. This is an important point to clarify regarding the state of the science, as many in the ongoing policy debate, including the Center for Genetics and Society, draw a clear line between gene therapy that would affect the body of just one patient (somatic), and interventions into gametes or early embryos (germline).

Familiar Political Themes

What about the politics embedded in The X Files finale?

Since the days of Thomas Malthus, alarms about overpopulation have often been accompanied by xenophobia, elitist attempts to control reproduction, and racialized crackdowns on borders and migration. In The X Files finale, the plot situates itself among the fears of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, but concerns over anthropogenic climate take center stage. The villain’s purported goal in undermining human immunity is to “to kill everyone but the chosen.” He cites “40-percent loss of bird life, the decimation of the ‘megafauna.’” He applauds the aliens for divining this efficient method of population control for their own planets, an eerie tribute to the American eugenicists who embraced forced sterilization for ”defectives” and better breeding among the “chosen.”

In the finale, CRISPR is controlled and distributed by those in power: the villain holds captive the antidote to immunity breakdown, and doles it out (in exchange for “favors”) to those he deems worthy to survive. In our twenty-first century reality of global inequality, both human and nonhuman applications of CRISPR involve a lot of private investment and patentable content. Will nonfictional biotechnological advantage become the province of the wealthy? Will it exacerbate existing disparities in living and health conditions between the wealthy few and the majority of humanity living in poverty?

In The X Files, CRISPR was portrayed as a magical techno-fix to global climate change and overpopulation; in real life, some are similarly hyping it for disease prevention. The New York Times recently discussed the vast biotech menagerie of Randall “RJ” Kirk, whose Intrexon empire includes the gene-edited-pests company Oxitec, which is currently releasing 250,000 GM mosquitoes per day in Brazil in attempts to combat the spread of a virus linked to birth defects. And the FDA is “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to begin testing out their GM mosquitoes in the Florida Keys. What makes Kirk eyebrow-raising, among various eccentricities cited in the article, is his portfolio of controversial, financially struggling, but nonetheless bio-revolutionary firms, and his willingness to take unilateral leaps forward into the biotech unknown. Whether chasing techno-enthusiastic solutionism or the risk-laden profit margins of spread-thin solvency, Kirk symbolizes many of the concerns raised by the undemocratic development of biotechnology.

Science, Storytelling, and Public Debate about Emerging Technologies

The X Files director Chris Carter recently called on long-time science consultant and University of Maryland virologist Anne Simon to brainstorm a technology that could help tie together the series’ ongoing plot lines. A number of reporters have asked Simon whether she feels that the plot’s reliance on CRISPR could escalate public fears about the (real-world) game-changing technology. Some of Simon’s responses have been dismissive:

[I]f you think that people are going to avoid vaccinating their kids because of imaginary aliens doing things on a TV show, that is just ridiculous. There isn't any hope to begin with for anyone that dumb.

Others seem overly optimistic:

Simon wants it made clear that in the real world, CRISPR and other genetic engineering techniques are tools for good, not evil. ‘The X-Files’ may be spooky, but it’s just a TV show. “The whole idea of trying to get something into everyone’s cells – that’s not a viable system,” she told GeekWire. “We keep trying to say these are aliens doing this. … It’s aliens, OK? Aliens can do anything.”

And sometimes she waxes thoughtful:

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.

Simon 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,” she says. The public, not just those who wield the technology, should be crucial players in making such decisions.

As Simon indicates, CRISPR’s potential use on the human germline – the third rail of genetic technologies – threatens to escalate public distrust in science. A concluding statement issued by the organizing committee of the three-day international summit on human gene editing in D.C. last December stated that it would be “irresponsible to proceed” with germline gene editing in the absence of “broad societal consensus.”

In 1998, the National Academies founded The Science & Entertainment Exchange, which has consulted over a thousand times on films and television shows. As this project indicates and as many observers recognize, popular narratives that engage with emerging bio-engineering technologies can shape public sentiment and facilitate broad debate about the multi-generational and societal impacts of research and experimentation.

The X Files is the first television show to feature CRISPR gene editing, the alternate futures it enables, and the social and political questions it raises. Let’s hope the writers now working on 12 new episodes of the British hit show Black Mirror are taking note.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:  

Images via Wikimedia: Roswell, Smallpox, Malthus, Rabbits

Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Animal Technologies, Arts & Culture, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Biotech & Pharma, Elliot Hosman's Blog Posts, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Patents & Other IP, Synthetic Biology


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