For a summer action blockbuster, Rampage never tries to hide its geeky premise. The film grounds its genetically enhanced monsters in actual CRISPR gene editing technology, and mentions that fact repeatedly even while bending the rules of what the technology can actually do.
Rampage begins on on a space station where scientists a testing weaponized version of CRISPR on lab rats. When one infected rat grows so large it destroys the station, three vials somehow end up back on earth where they mutate a gorilla, wolf, and crocodile into horrifying monsters that only Dwayne Johnson can stop.
It’s a cool bit of scientific grounding for the sci-fi adventure, but does it actually make sense? A bit of research reveals that while Rampage’s basic understanding of CRISPR might be sound, the film quickly veers off course when it comes to what the technology is actually capable of.
So what is CRISPR and what does it stand for? If you’re confused by the acronym (pronounced “crisper”) you’re not alone. Even The Rock himself admits to being a perplexed by the term.
CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and refers to a system for bacterial immunity that inspired a breakthrough in gene editing technology, making it possible to edit the genetic code of individual cells fix genetic mutations or replace damaged genes.
Here’s a quick explanation of CRISPR from Inverse’s Peter Hess:
In the Nineties, scientists noticed that bacterial DNA contained short patterns of nucleotide sequences that repeated regularly in the bacterial genome. Eventually, they realized that these sequences were remnants of past viral infections and that the bacteria had incorporated sections of viral DNA into their own genetic code. This way, when the bacteria encountered the same viruses in the future, they’d quickly recognize the disease and be able to rapidly and effectively fight it off. By employing the Cas9 enzyme that bacteria use to snip their DNA codes to incorporate the viral DNA, scientists found they could cheaply and accurately edit any genetic code to insert any foreign sequence they wanted.
There’s also a potential downside to CRISPR, and the U.S. intelligence community even placed it on a list of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in 2016. But that doesn’t mean CRISPR technology is going to turn regular animals into mutated monsters anytime soon.
The biggest hurdle between reality and Rampage is the fact that CRISPR is capable of editing individual strands of DNA, not entire organisms or even whole organs. So you’d have to edit each cell one at a time.
The movie overcomes this issue by claiming scientists have come up with a solution that never actually gets explained. So until real life CRISPR technology catches up with fictional achievements mentioned in Rampage, you can stop worrying about giant mutated gorillas and crocodiles.
This December, Inverse is counting down the 20 best science moments this year. This has been #12.
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