FICTIONAL REALITY: Turning fiction into non-fiction

By Dale Joseph Dino (Phagemids)

In line with this year's BIO 30 week theme, Reeling Histones: Genetics, the brightest star in neo-noir,
GENEWS focus on the delightful side of  Genetics and its involvement in the mainstream media and pop culture.
From reel to real, we have seen on the big screen our mutant friends possessing the so-called X-mutations fighting for their existence. Recently, we have also came across this girl named Lucy who was able to harness 100% brain capacity, thus enabling her to turn herself into a supercomputer after accidentally ingesting a hypothetical potent substance called CPH4.. Popular culture has been constantly mixing itself with science; giving birth to the world of science fiction. Starting from George Mieles’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902, various story plots have emerged from creative minds, allowing us previews of the futuristic horizon; from  lightsaber duels of Star Wars to the genetic laboratory horrors of the Jurassic Park franchise, science fiction has transcended far from man’s earthly perceptions.

Popular culture, widely known as Pop culture or simply “pop”, humbly started as a movement in the 1950’s where anything that is appealing to the majority of the population or “mainstream” is adapted by the society. Pop culture has greatly influenced the thinking and way of living of the people in a particular part of time. This movement is present in every corner of the society from the music we listen to, clothes we wear, the jargons we use in our conversations and other common denominators that make a “buzz”. Needless to say, this would also cover movies that we love to share and talk about in social media sites through memes.

One arm of pop culture that has been a favorite since expeditions in the moon started is known as science fiction, or Sci-fis. Popular examples of sci-fi movies are E.T., Artificial Intelligence, and Men in Black. Traveling back in history when Mendel’s still growing his pea plants, science fiction is merely known. Maybe except for magic tricks and some form of sorcery or black magic, most people believe in an empirical point of view which requires evidence to be presented in order to prove the existence of something. It was really believed that science is a straightforward discipline. Apparently, philosophy had lived long enough to live by the question “how?” and “what if?”

X-men Franchise. Photo:

One of the most controversial topics about Genetics is mutation – a very familiar theme of Marvel movies. From our friendly neighbor Spiderman, who gained his powers by simply being bitten by a genetically-modified spider, to our mutant X-men friends that have unique abilities and strives for their existence in the presumed “normal” world. In truth, however, these mutations may be of these three: mutation that has a tiny negligible effect, a detrimental mutation, or a mutation with no effect at all. This all depends to where the DNA mutation took effect – whether or not this mutation changes the structure or function of a protein that a specific gene or set of gene codes for. Researchers have used radiation to study mutation in simpler organisms such as flies. However, unlike what X-men propose to us that there is a “mutagenic hormonal extract” that is capable of transforming into a different creature or obtain superhuman powers, well apparently, there is no such thing as of today.

Gattaca movie poster. Photo:
Another popular topic in Genetics that has crossed the big screen is about designing one’s own genes, or even one’s own babies creating designer genes and designer babies, respectively. In 1997, the movie Gattaca created a world where genetic engineering, though not accessible to everyone, is prevalent. Gattaca features a utopian world where social class is determined by your genetic makeup, setting individuals conceived naturally as a disadvantage. People were divided into two classes: the “valids” which are genetically fit, and the “invalids” or “degenerate” who are susceptible to genetic diseases. Beyond the reelness of this scientific fantasy, we are not far from determining the fitness based on their genetic profiles, but development is always an interplay of nature and nurture; both the genes and environment contribute to an individual’s totality. Another fantastic feat of this movie is the over-the-counter ultra-fast genomic DNA sequencing which in reality, would usually take a number of days.  However, in vitro technology allows us to choose the sex of our children. Cytogenetically, the X chromosome is larger than the Y chromosome, thus detecting the amount of DNA in a particular sperm would determine if it’s carrying an X or a Y. Choosing a particular sex for your baby may help your child by preventing certain sex-linked disease from being passed, however there is a large impact of this especially socially and culturally as a result of cultural biases.

Blood stains, semen samples, and some spray and there goes your fingerprint. Detective shows have also been using science in order to convict someone for a crime. What’s peculiar with this is that your samples will just be placed in a machine, run some lights and then the machine goes and magically prints an arrest warrant for the perfect suspect. Even in the fast pace of technology, these snap-of-a-hand results are not impossible. The theory in these detective shows lies on genetic variation – variation in the genetic component of each individual. Even twins would have different marks known as epigenetic marks which would help distinguish them in the molecular level. Detective shows are really in such a hurry that they have results whenever they want it in a one-hour period of the show, because in reality, there are many steps depending on the technique to be used by the scientist who may take days, weeks, or even years. Also, DNA fingerprinting is used to exclude a suspect, not to pinpoint a suspect with 100% probability.

Brave New World movie poster. Photo:
Lastly, pop culture has been obsessed with the idea of eugenics. Dating back from the 19th century when Darwin published his book, Eugenics has made quite an impact in the society by creating the idea that fit individuals, who have good set genes, would only be allowed to procreate; thus the idea of extermination and genocides of the unfit. In 1931, Aldous Huxley published a Brave New World. This novel, which features babies given their roles according to their genetic constitution. Depending on their levels - Alpha are the highly intelligent leaders, while Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon were selected for their value as laborers, and the lowest ones are arrested at development. A few themes started emerging like Eco-catastrophe where an ecological disaster wipes most of the human race then bringing up front scientist to upgrade or genetically modify humanity in order to survive, which genetically translates to bottleneck effect side by side founder effect. Also, in 1985, Orson Scott wrote a sci-fi novel entitled, Ender’s Game which runs in a world where breeding is controlled by the governing state. Its protagonist, Ender, is quite different from the rest of the flock because of him being naturally conceived by his in vitro grown parents. This somehow gave him his brilliant abilities in military tactics and strategies, beating the antagonist Buggers. Though it might not be evident, but scifis implicitly served us with genetic discrimination from time to time until now.

Pop culture has been feeding us with so much imaginative works but it is just amazing that while precision and accuracy best describes science as a discipline, its description in a work of fiction is inconsequential. It is also interesting how each one of us maintains our willingness for suspension of disbelief just to feel a utopian and dystopian world. Science fiction has gone a long way and now it’s racing together with technological advancements. Genetics have been a favorite topic in scifis and modern geneticist are making progress at such a staggering speed that some of the classic science fiction scenarios are becoming plausible with current technology. Who knows that maybe in the near future you can just pop your bone out of your hand just like Logan, or be the most powerful psychic like Marvel Girl, or best known as Jean Grey?