CRISPR-Cas9 “gene editing” has been a source of hype, hope, and caution for the past several years, and its presence in labs, patent fights, policy discussions, and headlines has grown exponentially.
But in the finale of The X Files’ comeback season, it is aliens who first harness genome editing. “CRISPR patent belongs to aliens,” Sara Reardon comically claims in the Nature books and arts blog A View From the Bridge. As she notes,
it is human genome editing that forms the season’s backbone: a concept that is far more scientifically plausible today than it was in 2001 [around when The X Files went off-air] — or even 2012 [when CRISPR-Cas9 was developed as a genome editing platform].
In The X Files, the aliens use gene editing in the service of population control campaigns on other planets. In the real world, the range of potential CRISPR applications triggering social and ethical controversy includes
- human “germline” gene editing, i.e. creating modifications that will be passed down to future generations by engineering germ cells (gametes or embryos) prior to initiating a pregnancy — what the media sometimes call “designer babies” and
- climate change gene editing, i.e. attempting to alleviate the effects of anthropogenic global warming by modifying plants and animals, including drought-tolerant corn and soybeans and heat-tolerant cows.
Both of these brave-new-world applications come into play in the finale’s dystopian plot.
The Science of The X Files
The science in The X Files finale is discussed rather breathlessly, so for those might have missed it: In an earlier era of Roswell crash-landings and secretive extraterrestrial research, scientists discover that aliens had developed a “Spartan Virus” to “manage” overpopulation.