Molecular biology is the new radioactivity

Culture plays an important role in shaping our society. Throughout history, stories, poems and songs have commented on the world around them but have also inspired change through self-reflection. This seems partly to be satisfying a basic human need for a “structured” way to interpret our world. More recently, the presence of communications media that are able to virtually reach everyone in the world have allowed some forms of culture to dominate. The prime example is the so called pop culture: mostly movies, but also comic books, books and more recently even memes.

If one assumes that pop-culture as a whole can be a reflection on how its creators perceive our world and its future, looking at overarching trends might prove interesting. For instance, how’s pop culture perceiving science and its influence on society? An easy starting point is a hallmark of last century, which still has a strong influence in pop culture: World War II. Every year there are a number of movies with it as a setting, either to revive some sort of nationalistic pride or for plain old “entertainment”. I believe there’s something more to it, related to the huge influence the war has had on essentially all branches of sciences, from space rockets up to cryptography. One development in particular has for decades haunted pop culture: nuclear physics. Even a superficial survey of a few mangas should make clear how nuclear explosions and fallouts have been sublimated in many forms. But it doesn’t stop in Japan; American comic books from the 50s up to the 90s have featured super-heroes whose origins are overwhelmingly due to the effects of radioactivity. It’s easy to conclude that the fear and anticipation of its impact on society was translated in pop culture. Whether this influence stopped after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents is perhaps an open question.

Can you tell what this looks like? (from Akira)

What is pop-culture now perceiving as the current scientific bleeding edge? I’m tempted to say that molecular biology is the new radioactivity. Reflecting on the gradual takeover of molecular biology over biological sciences as a whole in the decades after the discovery of the structure of DNA, pop culture has started to display increasing anticipation and fear about its impact on society. The hallmark of this shift is most likely the ‘94 movie Jurassic Park, showcasing the power and ultimate hubris of “tinkering with mother nature”. The very same “radioactive” American superheroes have gradually been rebooted (multiple times over) to have their origin rewritten to be due to some failed experiment with some human/animal/alien DNA.

Bingo! Dino DNA

if dinosaurs and spider-men are perhaps very crude examples, two recent works of pop culture have captured my attention for being slightly more sophisticated. The first example is the movie Annihilation, which by itself is a great exercise in distilling and focusing an existing book. In it Alex Garland (writer/director) poses a simple question: how would a cancer look like if it came in the shape of an extra-terrestrial entity? How would plants and animals change when they are absorbed by a tumor the size of natural park? Despite a few sentences here and there that will certainly make a hardcore molecular biologist cringe, the movie brilliantly succeeds in portraying the irrational and senseless threat of cancer.

The second example is unlikely to have made the international stage, and its connection to molecular biology is rather comical for those following genomics discussions on twitter: the Italian TV-series “The Miracle” (“Il Miracolo”). Incidentally the series also comments on the uncertainties of the EU experiment: at the verge of an “Italexit” referendum, the prime minister is informed that a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping liters of blood every hour has been found1. Apart from the effect of revealing the presence of this unexplained phenomenon to the world and to the referendum itself would have, the first question that comes to mind is: “whose blood is it?”. Instead of crossing the sequence data with government and public repositories (as law enforcement are increasingly doing), the authors came up with a dodgy online service that could predict… facial features from DNA. I have no clue as to whether the authors were aware of the “facial features prediction” paper, but its critics would be happy to know that it didn’t work so well in this TV series. I’ll leave to the reader to figure out which other controversial molecular biology technique ended up working here.

[1] it sounds very silly, but Italy has an established history of weeping virgin Marys, and prime ministers gambling their careers on a referendum