EDGE OF INNOVATION
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EDGE OF INNOVATION

Jurassic World: Dominion may fall short on the science, but it’s social commentary is worth heeding

Jurassic World: Dominion stretches credibility, but real-world science is has made amazing strides since Jurassic Park came out in 1993

Author’s note: This is an earlier draft of an article that appeared in The Conversation. I’m always intrigued by how the process of working with an editorial team changes the tone and feel of a piece. This is the version as it stood before editorial input (with a couple of very minor tweaks of my own) — how do they compare?

Jurassic World: Dominion is hyperbolic Hollywood entertainment at its most extreme, with an action-packed storyline that steadfastly refuses to let reality get in the way of a good story. Yet just like its predecessors, there’s an underlying cautionary tale of technological hubris. And in a world where our ability to manipulate the DNA “source code” of biology is accelerating at breakneck speeds, it’s one that we ignore at our peril.

In 1993, Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was a game changer. The highest-grossing film around the world up to that time, it pushed the limits of computer-generated imagery, ignited a tsunami of dinosaur mania, and inspired a new generation of aspiring biotechnologists.

As I discuss in my book Films from the Future the film also grappled with the dangers of unfettered entrepreneurship and irresponsible innovation — so much so that it’s now a staple in an undergraduate classes I teach on socially responsible innovation.

As the latest installment in the franchise hits screens, the social insights of the original have made way for bigger spectacles, grander special effects, and vastly more fantastical plot lines. Peel away the Hollywood hype though, and there remains a message at the heart of the movie that is more relevant than ever as scientists continue to push the limits of genetic engineering.

Could Versus Should

The original Jurassic Park was based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name. Crichton rarely shied away from the complex social challenges of cutting-edge science and technology, and the book and film were no exceptions to this.

At the time, the possibility of manipulating DNA was getting ever-closer, and both book and movie captured emerging concerns that playing God with nature’s genetic code could lead to devastating consequences.

In the film, this was famously captured by Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) as he declared in exasperation “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Nearly thirty years on, Dr. Ian Malcolm is back in the latest iteration of the Jurassic Park franchise. In the intervening years, a lot has changed — both in the Jurassic Park Cinematic Universe, and in the real world.

In the film, people are coming to terms with the unanticipated and unchecked consequences of genetically resurrected and redesigned dinosaurs. In contrast we’re still a long way from the scientific mayhem of the movie in the real world. But the scientific advances of the past three decades have nevertheless seen a revolution in genetic engineering.

The question remains though whether we have learned the lesson of Jurassic Park and sufficiently closed the gap between “could” and “should,” or whether the science and technology of DNA manipulation continue to outpace our understand of how to use them ethically are responsibly.

(Re) Designing the Genome

The first draft of the human genome was published to great fanfare in 2001. This was the culmination of a multi-million-dollar international effort started in 1990, and it set the stage for reading, redesigning, and even rewriting complex genetic sequences. However, the technologies of the time were slow and expensive, and largely confined to major laboratories.

This began to change with the advent of new approaches to gene editing and the emergence of new communities of gene editors.

In 2005, the scientist and engineer Drew Endy proposed that it should be possible to work with DNA in much the same way that engineers work with electronic components. Endy’s work and that of others was foundational to emerging field of synthetic biology, where scientists increasingly brought engineering and design principles to genetic manipulation. It also fueled a growing community of “DIY Bio” hobbyists experimenting with genetic engineering, and led to the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM) where teams of students compete to use synthetic biology to design functional organisms.

Increasingly, scientists, engineers, designers, and even artists, began to approach DNA as biological code that can be digitized, manipulated and redesigned in cyber space (much as we routinely manipulate digital photos and video), and then downloaded back into biological reality.

The science was and continues to be complex. But the biggest barrier to the imagination and vision of the early pioneers of synthetic biology was the speed and cost of editing technologies.

Then CRISPR changed everything.

The CRISPR Revolution

In 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on a revolutionary new gene editing technology. CRISPR — or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — allowed scientists to precisely snip out and replace DNA sequences within genes.

CRISPR turned out to be quick, cheap, and relatively easy to use. And it unleashed the imagination of DNA coders.

More than any previous advance in genetic engineering, CRISPR allowed coding techniques from other domains to be applied to biology. This cross-fertilization of ideas and methods has led to breakthroughs as diverse as using DNA as a data storage medium, creating 3D “DNA origami” structures, and even re-engineering complete species.

This last possibility is made possible through gene drives — a technology where heritable CRISPR search-and-replace code is inserted into an organism’s genome, thus ensuring that designed traits are passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a technology that is currently being experimented with to control disease-carrying mosquitoes, and one that has the capacity to allow whole species to be re-designed.

Viral Redesign

Advances in gene editing have also made it increasingly easy to genetically alter the behavior of individual cells (including single celled organisms), and even viruses. This is at the heart of biomanufacturing techniques that re-engineer simple organisms to produce substances ranging from aviation fuel to food additives. It’s also at the center of controversies surrounding genetically engineered viruses.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic there have been rumors that the SARS-CoV-2 virus resulted from genetic experiments gone wrong. While these rumors remain unsubstantiated, they’ve renewed debate around the ethics of so-called “gain of function” research.

Gain of function research uses uses DNA editing techniques to alter how organisms function, including increasing the ability of viruses to cause disease. By doing so, it allows scientists to predict and prepare for mutations of already-circulating viruses that increase their ability to cause harm.

However, such research also raises the possibility of a dangerously enhanced virus being released — either through error or intentionally. And while viruses are much smaller than the dinosaurs of Jurassic World, the current pandemic has been a painful reminder that size and ability to cause mayhem don’t always go hand in hand.

At the same time, it’s our increasing mastery over biological source code that allowed the rapid development of mRNA vaccines to combat COVID. By using precisely engineered messenger RNA (a complimentary molecule to DNA), the vaccines are able to instruct cells how to create virus-related proteins that, in turn, trigger a protective immune response.

Both gain of function research and mRNA vaccines are examples of just how far gene editing has come since 1993. But impressive as these are, they still don’t have the Hollywood appeal of designer dinosaurs.

So how close are we to bringing back extinct species using advanced genetic engineering?

Back from the Dead

Sadly, we won’t be bringing dinosaurs back to life anytime soon. Dino-DNA simply isn’t robust enough to survive the ravages of time. Despite this, using gene editing to bring back extinct species is an active area of research, and one that’s as controversial as it is promising.

For some years now, Harvard scientist George Church has been on a mission to bring the wooly mammoth back to life, using a range of genetic design and engineering techniques. The mega-fauna may be less sexy than the dinosaurs of Jurassic World, but beyond that, the technology and the entrepreneurial drive are remarkably similar.

As DNA manipulation techniques continue to advance, scientists are exploring an increasing number of “de-extinction” possibilities, from rodents like the Christmas Island rat to the Tasmanian Tiger. These efforts aren’t without their challenges — it turns out that getting hold of complete genomes from extinct species is fiendishly difficult. One of the solutions to this though is to fill in the gaps with DNA sequences from existing species.

Of course, as anyone who knows their Jurassic Park will know, this didn’t work out so well with dinosaurs!

Responsible Biological Source Code Manipulation

Prescient as Michael Crichton was, it’s unlikely that he could have envisioned just how far our abilities to engineer biology have advance over the past three decades. In many ways, we’re substantially further on now than many of the underlying technologies in Jurassic Park and the subsequent films.

But how have we done on the responsibility front?

Fortunately, consideration of the social and ethical side of gene editing has gone hand in hand with the science’s development. From the get go, ethical, legal and social dimensions of the science were hardwired into the Human Genome project.

Similarly, social responsibility is integral to the iGEM competition. DIY Bio communities have been at the forefront of safe and responsible gene editing research. And scientific communities the world over have demonstrated extreme caution in avoiding irresponsible behavior when it comes to genetic design and manipulation.

Yet, as the technology becomes increasingly powerful and accessible (aided and abetted by advances in artificial intelligence), a community of well-meaning scientists and engineers are unlikely to be sufficient.

While the Jurassic Park/World movies are rife with hyperbolic dramatic license in their portrayal of the future, they do get one thing right: even with good intentions, bad things happen when you mix powerful technologies with power-hungry people.

Maybe this is the abiding message of Jurassic World: Dominion — that despite incredible advances in genetic design and engineering, things can and will go wrong if we don’t embrace similar advances in how we develop and use the technology in socially responsible ways.

The good news is that we still have time to close the gap between “could” and should” in how we re-design and re-engineer genetic code. But as Jurassic World: Dominion reminds us, the future is often closer than it might appear!

As a final note, this is not a good movie! The story telling and pacing are off, the science is messed up, and even the ethics narrative is mangled and mis-focused. Yet just like its predecessors it’s a great conversation opener for exploring how we work together toward a future where science and technology benefit as many people as possible, and where potential downsides are anticipated and navigated. Plus it’s still worth watching if you’re in the mood for a bit of mindless entertainment :)

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Andrew Maynard

Andrew Maynard

4.2K Followers

Scientist, futurist & Professor of Global Futures at ASU. Author of Future Rising and Films from the Future. Writing about tech, society, & the future