I watched the first season of Biohackers, the new Netflix tech thriller. I will try to limit spoilers as much as possible. What interests me now are the characters: what do they tell us about CRISPR perception? Are they original or stereotypical?
Let’s start with the gender issue: women dominate the scene, for better or for worse. First of all, Professor Tanja Lorenz of the University of Friborg. Thin and elegant like Jennifer Doudna, she is an innovator and a visionary like the inventor of CRISPR. But this is sci-fi and Tanja is Jennifer’s evil twin. It is clear from the first episode when she asks her students what the future of medicine is.
No, it is not artificial intelligence nor telemedicine, otherwise they would be listening to a computer scientist and not a biologist. Synthetic biology? A big yes! But what is it? According to Lorenz, it “turns us from creatures to creators” and “makes God obsolete.” Stereotypical representation of scientists playing God, oh yes. From this premise, it is easy to understand that the ambition to heal humanity risks getting the opposite result.
Here comes Mia, the girl who attends Lorenz’s class and has a past shrouded in mystery. She is full of courage and other virtues. While doing her homework she practically reinvents the key step of the CRISPR-Cas9 invention, fusing two components of the system to make it easier. An unlikely stroke of genius for a first-year student, but oh well.
My favorite character is not Mia, however, neither is Jasper, the professor’s young assistant, who episode after episode will prove to be a controversial figure (I don’t want to tell you more). My favorite is Chen-Lu, with her weird laugh. The Chinese biology roommate is nerdier than Mia. She is not a vegetarian but wants to give mushrooms a taste of meat and relegate livestock farming to the past.
When Mia has to quickly solve a technical problem and produce an antidote to save somebody (no spoiler!), she replies in one breath: “To answer your question yes, there is a difference between CRISPR in humans and plants. Altering the human genome is illegal but, if you are setting aside the stem cells, I think that theoretically you can have a therapy authorized, but it takes time for something like that. So theoretically I could build the correct sequence but it is illegal, so why are you dragging me into this!”.
In the background of the struggle between good and evil there is a fluorescent mouse named Mendel, a musical plant and a lethal swarm of mosquitoes. In real laboratories, CRISPR is used to eradicate mosquitoes that transmit malaria, but Netflix tells a different story. And maybe this is my biggest oh no.