(Apologies to Blue Oyster Cult…yes, I’m old.)
The latest episode of Science Goes to the Movies is available online. Mutants and mutations were the focus of the episode, which starts by discussing issues raised by the X-Men films (the latest of which debuts later this month). Not all works about mutants are fiction, and this episode also covers the treatment of albinism in Tanzania through the documentary The Boy From Geita. The guests this week are Hemali Phatnani, Director of The Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease, and Joseph Pickrell, Assistant Investigator and Core Member of the New York Genome Center.
There are Web Extras for this episode (not every episode has them, but many do), where the conversation gets into additional details about genetics and specifically mutations.
It’s usually hard, and often a disservice, to summarize these episodes (particularly in this season) with a core theme. But I think a clear takeaway here is that popular representations of mutations (and mutants) are vast oversimplifications of the current understanding of mutations – changes in DNA through copying errors or outside influences.
As some of the better known examples of mutations in popular culture are comic book or other popular genre work, I can understand the urge to simplify what’s causing mutations and overselling their potential effects in order to tell a compelling story. However, as discussed in this episode, this can influence how people perceive the current state of genetics (and of science in general) as being faster and more responsive than it actually is.
This episode also discusses, if just briefly, what could be considered human-made mutations in discussing the development and use of CRISPR gene editing technologies. Host Faith Salie also discussed her experience on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where she played a genetically engineered human in two episodes. The ethics of intentionally modifying a human genome, especially if the changes would be passed on to future generations, is a concern of everyone on this episode, and might be revisited should the program spend an episode on genetic engineering (GATTACA being a likely part of that conversation).
That topic could come up in next week’s episode, which covers cancer, immortality, and at least the recent Deadpool film. It won’t be the last superhero film this season, as a future episode will dive into The Flash (which was briefly mentioned in this episode as well).