Ten years ago this month, I attended the Catalyst Workshop at the American Film Institute. The week-long program taught screenwriting to a dozen scientists, with the hope that we’d somehow help Hollywood get the science right.
But what we learned during that fabulous week, dissecting films such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” meeting top studio people and even pitching ideas, is that the science just doesn’t matter. Although I agree that story and characters are paramount, getting the science right doesn’t take much effort, and can not only improve plausibility, but also accurately portray scientists. Geneticists in particular seem especially vulnerable to villianizing.
A TIRED PLOT
My latest target for tarnishing the image of geneticists is “Between,” a six-episode Netflix offering from Canada. (Yes, I know Halle Berry’s hybrid son on Extant has something to do with a virus, but I gave up two episodes ago.)
“Between” is an amalgam of familiar themes. It’s Logan’s Run, Under The Dome, and Lord of the Flies, with a small town setting like that of Wayward Pines, which I blogged about recently. And like those shows, the focus is on the characters and their relationships, with the predicament a backdrop that fuels the interactions.
So now we have Between. In the town of Pretty Lake, over the course of a few days, everyone aged 22 and older suddenly gasps, bleeds from the nose, and dies. The government quarantines the town and the young folk pile up the bodies of their elders and have a huge bonfire. Early in episode one, a main character, a geeky young man named, of course, Adam, mentions his father, a mysteriously missing geneticist. This is repeated throughout the early episodes. Foreshadow the mad scientist.
A nice touch is the accurate depiction of a major character who has Down syndrome. But one scene dangerously got insulin shock ass backwards. A boy with type 1 diabetes collapses from days without insulin and everyone yells “He’s in insulin shock! Give him candy!” Without insulin, how would his cells take up the glucose? Who vetted that script?
BLAME THE VIRUS
Soon, the people in Pretty Lake and the talking heads on their screens deem the culprit a virus. My husband Larry (a chemist) and I hung on through all six episodes to learn exactly how a virus could tell that a person has reached age 22.
We learn in the final episode, when the crazy nameless geneticist shows up via a tunnel that perhaps comes from Wayward Pines, that he engineered the virus. He cleverly included a bit of his own DNA so that he and his son would be immune. Note to the show’s writers: a parent and a child are not genetically identical. Nor do they have the same exposures guiding development of their immune systems.
The evil geneticist was working alone on the virus, because the government sends in unwitting workers wielding needles to “vaccinate” the town’s young survivors, supposedly so the quarantine can be lifted. But no. The shots will kill the young people to protect the rest of the world, as the clueless shotgivers over age 21 become victims, bleeding and dropping.
Larry and I were sorely disappointed with the ending, which did nothing to satisfy the craving of the scientifically-minded to understand how things work.
The geneticist explains how the virus kills people over 21 with a lot of posturing, emitting a barrage of inappropriate technical terms, concluding inexplicably with something about the ozone layer. It all speeds by too fast to process, but the spouting renegade geneticist seems to have invented the virus to fight overpopulation. I think. The focus is much more on teen angst involving a pregnancy and jealousy than how a virus can tell how old someone is.
When Adam parrots his dad’s message to the others, that the killer virus homes in on “the biological clock,” everyone nods with comprehension. But that term refers to circadian and other biorhythms, not a FitBit like contraption embedded in our spleens that flashes our exact ages. Basic Bio 101 writers! But it’s easy to see how that sort of error might have come up: oversimplification in a news release, which means oversimplification in the articles that spawn from it. The news release headline “Leicester scientists to unlock the secrets of the biological clock” actually refers to telomeres, the tips of chromosomes that whittle down with increasing age. Aha!
The only reason that I watched “Between” to begin with was in anticipation of using telomeres in an apocalypse story. Shrinking chromosome tips are like cellular tree rings in reverse, disappearing rather than accruing with the passage of time. With repeats of TTAGGG lopped off one by one from chromosome ends as time goes on, marking the number of cell divisions, telomeres are more quantitative than gray hairs, achy joints, and wrinkles.
In telomeres, Nature provided the perfect plot point, if only the show’s writers had looked.
The telomere clock dates back to the famous “Hayflick Limit” of 40 to 60 mitoses for cells in culture. In the 1950s, Leonard Hayflick, PhD, was a young researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. He wanted to see what the fluid around cancer cells would do to normal cells from human embryos and fetuses. At that time all cells were thought to be immortal, dividing unceasingly. “Today if I did that using federal research dollars to grow tissue from human embryos or fetuses, I would go to jail,” he told me a few years ago for my essay collection.
Hayflick had wanted to run replicates of his experiment simultaneously, but the supply of material was erratic. “In my incubator at any given time, I’d have 12 to 20 cultures going, each marked with a different start date.”
He soon discovered something strange. “Despite the fact that I used the same technician, the same glassware, and the same media, the cells in culture the longest stopped dividing, while the young cultures luxuriated. That shouldn’t happen. It intrigued me, so I began to look at what was going on.”
Hayflick’s fetal cells died after being moved a certain number of times, each move triggering cell division. He and colleague Paul Moorhead repeated their astonishing experiments over and over, with the same results – cells obeyed some sort of internal clock that marks the number of cell divisions. Freeze cells at division 20, and when thawed, they’d pick up where they left off, dividing 20 to 40 more times.
But it’s hard to change dogma and get published. And so Hayflick and Moorhead “sent the luxuriating cultures – the young ones – to the grey eminences of the field. We would tell them, ‘by May 20th to 30th, the cells are going to die.’ When the phone started ringing between May 20th and 30th, we decided to publish. If our work went up in flames, we’d be in the company of the grey eminences,” Hayflick told me. After a stinging rejection from one journal, the findings were published in Experimental Cell Research in 1961.
Discovery of the Hayflick limit founded what we now call telomere biology. Many others, including Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostack, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2009, discovered the DNA sequence of human telomeres and how they function as fuses, marking biological time. DNA polymerase cannot replicate DNA at the end of a strand, unless an enzyme called telomerase tacks on more repeats – as happens in cancer cells. So Pretty Lake might have had a few cancer patients hanging around with the quarreling teens and kids. Their chromosome tips would appear young.
Larry and I eagerly awaited a character turning 22 to find out how the virus tracks time. Indeed, a pretty and popular teacher celebrates her 22nd birthday midway through episode 4, and sure enough, within minutes, spews nasal blood and expires. How could that have happened? After all, telomere shrinkage is not a discrete and uniform phenomenon. All 21-year-olds don’t have x number of TTAGGGs and a 22-year-old x-1.
I’m imagining deploying a virus that targets the telomeres using a form of genome editing (CRISPR/cas-9, TALENs, or zinc finger nucleases) and only integrating into a host chromosome if the number of repeats is below a certain threshhold. Then, the virus induces hemorrhage, perhaps by turning off transcription of various clotting factors. (Readers please elaborate or pose alternate hypotheses.)
Reviewers trashed Between for a lot of reasons – too derivative, “ho-hum,” a “familiar ensemble soap opera with conspiracy-theory embroidery,” and Hollywood Reporter’s “It’s the end of the world as they know it, and viewers won’t care.” None that I could find mentioned the spotty science.
I’m disturbed about the missed opportunity to imagine how a virus could take out an entire huge age cohort of humanity. But I’m much more disturbed about the tired stereotype of the mad scientist, especially the ego-driven geneticist who tailors a mysterious and dangerous virus to control human population growth. It’s not only absurd, but in this age of Ebola epidemics, and fear of vaccines and genetic modification, the ideas behind Between and the events at Pretty Lake are downright dangerous.