Science in Fiction: Genetic Manipulation

Genetics can be very exciting from a theoretical point of view. In fiction, we don’t have to worry about ethics, or the restraints of our time. We can open our minds to the very limits of what the world has to offer, then skip right over the border with a huge grin on our faces singing show tunes.

In this post, I’ll cover all the basics you’ll need to write about this in your fiction… and not make a scientist shudder. We all love stories like Dark Angel or When the Wind Blows by James Patterson. But how do we pull it off effectively? What if we want to give people psychic abilities, human/animal hybrids, or genetic vampires or werewolves?

Some of these things are easy. Your hybrids are fairly simple as these are things we already do in some ways, albeit not on humans for ethics reasons. An example would be the ability to manipulate electricity. This is something that can be spliced in from electric eels. But keep in mind that electric eels function on polarity (one end of their bodies are positively charged, and the other negatively charged). So someone using this ability would need to take that polarity into consideration when writing the character (e.g. Brennan Mulray from Mutant X). So don’t forget to research the animals you’re taking the genes from. This will help your science to seem more consistent and accurate if you make them work the same.

Psychic abilities are more complicated, since scientists haven’t been able to study much of this and actually get real results. I did like something that the show Fringe did with the drug Cortexiphan, which was a drug intended to prevent the mental flexibility and potential of the brain from deteriorating. However, the show screwed up in that most of this deterioration happens in the first 2 years of life, which means it would have needed to have been administered as early as possible–at birth or earlier. Any manipulations you do here should be early like this as well. Unfortunately, because there are no organisms that we can borrow these abilities from, our best bet is “maximizing” brain usage, seeing as we only use a small portion of our brains normally. You could always claim that your scientists discovered a combination of genes that pulled this off. It needs to be a combination because when a trait is handled by multiple genes, it is harder to discover. You could also suggest it is not controlled my Mendelian inheritance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mendelian_inheritance). Non-Mendelian inheritance patterns are harder to identify.

There is so feasible way to create genetic werewolves. There is no organism on Earth that can change shape like that, which means there is nothing we can work from to get that effect. There are, however, creatures that can completely replace parts of their bodies, like earthworms, starfish, and certain types of lizards, so that, in theory is something that you could do.

Vampires, on the other hand, are possible, in a way. There are drugs that can influence speed and strength (think PCP), diseases and drugs that cause sensitivity to light (that’s about a million of them), even diseases that cause a thirst for blood. By looking into what all these can do, it isn’t infeasible to create a vampire from all these elements.

Now, if you’re interested, I’m including some little-known details that could give your stories some valuable realism. You can pick through these, or ignore them entirely, but I hope you find it useful.

Table of Contents:

  1. The Environment
  2. The Scientists
  3. The Birth of a Scientist
  4. Genetic Engineering vs. Gene Therapy
  5. Gene Therapy
  6. Genetic Engineering
  7. Experimental Design
  8. Technical Jargon and Tools

The Environment

We are in exciting times, times of change, which means the future is limitless, and hard to predict. Right now, places like North Carolina State University are doing away with their Genetics Departments, not because genetics is obsolete, but because it cannot be separated from other Biological Sciences anymore. Botany, Microbiology, Plant Pathology, Veterinary Medicine–all of these now rely intensively on genetic research, and you can’t get away from it. If you work in a biological science, you’re going to be dabbling in genetics.

The Scientists

I’m a scientist, but I’ll be the first to admit that scientists are often dumb. They’re great in that they pave their own roads, but they often can’t follow someone else’s directions to save their lives. They write thirty page research articles, but might only barely be able to speak English. They might honestly not know why anyone would be traumatized by being handed a cute mouse, then having it taken away, its neck snapped, and dissected. Yeah, that’s some of my experiences with scientists for you. They often have blinders on, and honestly don’t understand why others aren’t as enthused with the biochemical pathways of Arabidopsis thaliana as they are, for example.
But they can also be very smart, ingenious, dedicated, and willing to work hours most people would never consider when paid so little, because it’s all for the science, right?

The Birth of a Scientist

There are 3 stages of education for scientists: Bachelor’s, Masters, and PhD. Most fall under the first (like me). Very few intelligent people go for a Masters in science as it’s useless in most fields. Very few people get a PhD, so very few understand what that involves, so I’ll go into that here.
It all starts with grad school. Most think of this as a sort of “starving artist” stage, but that’s not really true. True, you don’t get paid much, but you often get paid (unless, of course, you choose a Major Advisor who can’t afford you), at least in the physical sciences.
I went to a PhD program for Genomic Sciences. My program had a 1 year stipend, after which time I had to move over onto either my own grant, or my Major Advisor’s grant. The first two years, you powerhouse, getting all of your academic courses in, which is more fun than you’d think because unlike in undergrad, you get to pick mostly classes you’re good at (you wouldn’t have picked a graduate program on a subject you suck at, would you?). The grades are easy. The first 1-2 semesters, you’re doing rotations through labs, trying to find a lab you want to join. After that, you’re often required to teach, generally 2 semesters as a TA, but the last three years (of 5 not 4) are spent really working on your research. And you have to get it done or you can’t graduate, which is MUCH harder than it sounds.
After grad school, you have the option of going into the private sector, or trying to become a research professor, which means having to be a post doc first (sort of like a resident for the medical path), where you get paid dickens to work on someone else’s project essentially. That usually lasts two years. And then there are loads and loads of levels of professor, depending on the place (but I don’t know them all).

Genetic Engineering vs. Gene Therapy

These are the two main types of modification a layman would recognize. But what are they?
Gene Therapy is what was done to Vincent Keller in the CW’s Beauty and the Beast, and for the most part, it’s laughable. Impossible. There are a variety of things that can be done using Gene Therapy, but it is rarely what people claim to do in fiction.

Gene Therapy:

There are two ways of pulling off Gene Therapy: completely replace the cells with modified cells, or administer something inside the living being that will alter it.
The first is easy. Perfect for things like leukemia, where you would have to replace all the bone marrow cells anyway to treat conventionally. It can also be controlled as you only administer the cells that received the therapy perfectly. This can be done with any type of tissue, as long as it can be grown and transplanted (there are some amazing things being done with tissue and organ growth).
The second is very difficult, and almost impossible with today’s technology. It requires injecting someone with something that has to pass through their cell and nuclear membranes and edit their DNA. Unfortunately, genetic manipulation like this is always a bit of a crapshoot, working only maybe 1% of the time, resulting in nothing or the wrong thing 99% of the time (and please don’t use those numbers, as they’re estimations, not facts). It can insert correctly, or backwards, the wrong location, multiple times, into the wrong cell types. Our DNA is mostly made up of repetitive DNA, which means that it’s not always easy to find a location that is truly unique to insert at. And our DNA is the same in every cell, which means you need something that can identify specific cell types, maybe something that identifies a specific protein.
On a third note, anything involving the brain or most of the senses (other than touch) are almost impossible to do by Gene Therapy because of the blood/brain barrier, which blocks almost anything from passing.

Genetic Engineering:

And this is where the fun stuff begins. Genetic Engineering is used by probably most of the biological scientists in the world. It generally involves manipulating an organism at the single cell stage so that the modification is present in every cell of the fully grown organism. It’s used frequently in crops on the current market. It’s the easiest and the most effective, not to mention probably cheaper, and you can do all the screening in petri dishes rather than people. The Clinical Trials portion of the research costs a fortune and takes years.
So, for genetic engineering a human, you would first take a fertilized embryo, choose a method of manipulating it (often chemical or enzyme based), verify with sequencing (probably Next Gen Sequencing followed by Sanger Sequencing for humans), then grow once you’ve confirmed that you got what you were looking for. The sequencing will mean that you will only be moving forward with the experiment with the winners (can also be used with gene therapy, especially for the first method i mentioned).

Experimental Design

One thing to keep in mind is that no genetic modification works a hundred percent of the time. Whatever experiment you write about, expect almost all of the test subjects to be duds. Some will be completely, and others will have extremely adverse reactions (e.g. might not grow beyond a few cells, might have anywhere from mild to severe genetic disorders and defects). And so, expect your experiment size to be massive, whatever you’re experimenting on.

Technical Jargon and Tools:

Micropipettes – dispenses very small volumes of liquids (<1mL) Serological Pipettes – dispenses larger volumes of liquids (>1mL)
Centrifuges – spins things really, really fast. I use them most often to spin all the liquid off the cap of a tube, or off the seal/caps of a plate of samples.
Thermal cyclers (also spelled Thermocyclers) – used to amplify DNA. Can also be used to insert a sequence.
Sanger Sequencing – often used to verify that an inserted sequence was inserted properly. Sequences up to 1100bps in a single reaction. Good when your method of manipulation leaves a small “known” sequence surrounding your insert.
Next Gen Sequencing – aka NGS aka Next Generation Sequencing aka 2nd Generation sequencing. Often called NGS. Does a lot of extremely small sequences and knits them all together to sequence an entire genome. Very fast, but a computational nightmare (and misses large portions of the human genome because of the short sequences). Produces massive amounts of data (data storage and transfer is an issue they encounter).
Bioinformatics – analysis of sequencing data, for example. It can encompass a lot of other types of data and processes.

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