Monday, April 21, 2008

Splice: Rock and Roll Geneticists and the Horror of Genetic Engineering

Update: The publicist for Splice has asked me to take the promo image down, so I have. You can see the images at Ain't it Cool News. She also points out that Guillermo Del Toro is the executive producer and that Steve Hoban of Copperheart Entertainment is the producer. Hopefully they'll release some promotional images soon.

Producer Guillermo Del Toro and Director/Writer Vincenzo Natali's latest movie is Splice, which stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as a pair of molecular biologists with more ambition than sense.
Elsa and Clive, two young rebellious scientists, defy legal and ethical boundaries and forge ahead with a dangerous experiment: splicing together human and animal DNA to create a new organism. Named "Dren", the creature rapidly develops from a deformed female infant into a beautiful but dangerous winged human-chimera, who forges a bond with both of her creators - only to have that bond turn deadly.
Nelson Cabral of interviewed Natali, whose description of the main characters makes them sound a bit like computer hackers:
. . . I sort of saw it as the natural evolution of whats happening with computer programming. A lot of really young people do computer programming, they deal with really sophisticated technology, really sophisticated hardware. I’m sure that that is happening currently in the bio-technology field as well. It just seemed like the appropriate thing. On some level, the movie is about deciding to have a family, and what you do with becoming a parent, so it had to be about young people so Clive and Elsa are sort of, as rock and roll geneticists, are ill equipped to become parents, and that’s what makes it exciting to watch them have a mutant kid.
Natali also mentioned the real science that was his inspiration for the movie:
Why splice? Because years ago there was this thing I saw a photo of, its called (something)mouse, it was, by all appearances, a human ear on its back. It actually was a plastic armature under a kind of skin that could be grafted onto human beings. It was such a crazy, shocking weird image that I was inspired to write a story about genetic splicing.
The experiment that Natali is remembering is probably the work of Joseph and Charles Vacanti of the Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Back in 1997 their photo of a mouse with a human ear-shaped growth on its back made a splash in the popular media. It's no wonder that it caught Natali's attention. He apparently didn't pay much attention to the story attached with the picture, though, because the experiment had absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering. What the Vacantis and colleagues actually did was form a biodegradable polymer into the shape of a human ear, seed it with cow cartilage cells (bovine chondrocytes), and implant it under the skin of the experimental mice1. They found that new cartilage formed in the shape of the implant. And it turns out their methodology had immediate real-world applications. They used similar techniques to grow a "shield" in the chest of boy who was born with no cartilage or bone between his skin and heart. They also were able to grow a replacement thumb tip using a scaffold made of coral. It's very cool tissue engineering technology.

It isn't that surprising that Natali thinks that genetic engineering was involved. He may have seen the full page ad in the New York Times placed by the anti-biotechnology group the Turning Point Project, which (according to Wikipedia) showed the picture of the ear-bearing mouse with the description "This is an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse with a human ear on its back"2. The image also made the email chain letter rounds with similarly misleading information.

I've noticed that the term "mutant" is commonly used as shorthand to describe any mal- or unusually-formed animal, even when no mutations or other DNA changes are involved, so it's not such a stretch for people to believe that genetic engineering could be used for something as fantastic as growing an extra ear. Splice taps into the idea that genetic engineering is the can-do-anything science for the 21st century. As Splice co-producer Steve Hoban commented, “If Mary Shelley had been born 200 years later she wouldn’t have written Frankenstein, she would have written ‘Splice’.

Splice is scheduled to be released in 2009. In the mean time, check out Ain't It Cool News for more images of Splice's human-animal hybrid (some NSFW).

1. Cao Y et al. (1997) "Transplantation of Chondrocytes Utilizing a Polymer-Cell Construct to Pruduce Tissue-Engineered Cartilage in the Shape of a Human Ear", Plast Reconstr Surg 100(2):297-302.

2. It's not clear to me if their deception was intentional or the creator of he ad was merely incompetent. Unfortunately advertisements aren't required to be truthful (or issue corrections for inaccuracies), so public perception is influenced by the misleading copy.

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  1. It is again an example of bad science in sf movie.
    Its not fair to comment that Shelly if born in today's world would have made something like 'splice' instead of 'Frankenstein'.
    'Frankenstein's science is not as bad as it is with 'Splice' as your review reveals.

  2. Well, to be fair to "Splice", we don't really know what the science is going to be like until the movie is released. I doubt it will be as profound in its examination of ethics and the nature of science.

  3. Anonymous12:52 PM

    To be fair, the science in Frankenstein is laughable. But it's not really about the science. Shelley's classic is an exploration of the human condition. I doubt that Splice aspires to anything half as noble. It probably just wants to be entertaining, and I fully support that. Both use bad science for their own ends, and that's fine. Take each on its own, for what it is. Just don't believe the hype.

  4. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Judging by Natali's quote, he didn't actually skip over the article included with the mouse photo: he described that he realized that the ear was a plastic shape with skin grown over it, and he went on to say that this made him imagine something similarly unnatural but with more questionably ethical man-made origins.

  5. I like Del Toro’s work. I’m hoping in this one, Del Toro des not have Dren mate with Hell Boy. If Dren’s just a metabolic burst without replicating power, we’re relatively safe. Del Toro might as well play in the sandbox of economics too: have Dren evade detection at biometric ATM machines. As to scientists having “more ambition than sense” – I love what Feynman said in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” namely, that when it comes to ethics and solving the world’s problems, scientists “are just as dumb as the next guy.” It’s not excesively exploitive of Del Toro to work this out.



    Frankenstein's science is of course laughable but it was at least an honest effort by the author to make use of contemporary knowledge [of science ]-the Luigi Galvani's and Volta's experiments to advance her plot to a logical extreme -the moral being that there are somethings['science' included]we should not blindly follow without a thorough grasp of its pros and cons.


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