We live in an age in which NBC will happily pick up Jennifer Lopez’s new show C.R.I.S.P.R., a drama about DNA hackers proposing that fetuses can be framed for murder, and gene editing is an assassination tool. While the promise of a future in which pop culture embraces impenetrable genetic research and its implications is encouraging, it’d be nice if, you know, we got it right.
J.Lo’s procedural drama takes its name from CRISPR, or “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” the new-ish revolutionary gene editing technique that acts like a pair of genetic scissors, snipping out genes from precise locations on a string of DNA and occasionally swapping them for other strings of genetic code. It’s proved to be an incredible tool — scientists have used it to engineer hypoallergenic peanuts and potentially bring back the woolly mammoth — but C.R.I.S.P.R. seems to be giving the gene editing system too much credit. The system, which remains error-prone and unpredictable, isn’t that good. At least not yet.
As The Hollywood Reporter noted when it broke the news, each episode of C.R.I.S.P.R. will “explore a bio-attack and crime,” with future storylines involving a “genetic assassination attempt on the president” and the “framing of an unborn child for murder.” It isn’t clear how either of these will incorporate the gene editing technique. Maybe the president will be injected with bacteria carrying CRISPR enzymes targeting his immune system, or maybe in the distant future, in which the show is set, we will know enough about the functions of our genes to tell whether a fetus is genetically predisposed to kill.
But IRL, the fact of the matter is, we just don’t know what most of our genes do, and, more often than not, most of our traits can’t be traced back to a single gene or teased apart from the environmental forces that shaped them. CRISPR might be an effective cut-and-paste tool, but its use is limited by what we know about our genes — which is, frankly, very little. Its potential, however, makes it ripe for sci-fi speculation. It’s already been adopted by Marvel’s writers, who recently referenced it on Netflix’s Luke Cage, in their explanation of the titular character’s bulletproof skin and super strength.
Ludicrous as its premise is, the sheer existence of the procedural drama suggests that pop culture is ready to embrace even the most arcane realms of science, and this is a good thing, as long as knowledgable experts are ready to supply answers where questions inevitably arise. It’s one thing for a show to revolve around applied science like forensics, as in the CSI series, or medical anomalies, like Grey’s Anatomy does. But to take CRISPR, a submicroscopic technique that to most people remains an abstraction, and utter it in the same breath as Jennifer Lopez? WATTBA, indeed.