Dark Angel: Questionable Science, Cool Results
The cyberpunk thriller television series, Dark Angel is a unique peek at a pulpy yet sentimental universe in which Jessica Alba plays a transgenic (“an organism that contains genetic material into which DNA from an unrelated organism has been artificially introduced”) super-soldier on the run from the government amidst a pseudo post-apocalyptic dystopian backdrop. Directed by James Cameron, Dark Angel ran from 2000-2002 and prominently features government conspiracy, genetic augmentation, and investigative journalism that all would feel at home in 2016. The show ran only two seasons, yet had a complex plot-line which deeply explored the life of Alba’s transgenic character, Max. Dark Angel wasn’t the most realistic science fiction show, but it was quite plausible most of the time.
X5-452: Biotechnical augmentation
Any discussions of biotechnological augmentation and Dark Angel should begin with the Dark Angel herself: Max. Max, also known as X5-452, is a young woman who was originally raised from the womb by a government program named Manticore, which was intent on creating genetically engineered super soldiers at any cost. Sound familiar? To the credit of the children raised by Manticore, Max’s class of soldiers staged an escape, and many were able to use their superhuman abilities to successfully evade capture for years at a time. Did I mention that a “manticore” is a legendary creature that is hybrid of a lion and a scorpion? Turns out that the government program Manticore created genetic hybrids of humans and various animals. Kind of. Today, we’d just call it borrowing a few genes.
Not Everyone Can Come Out Right
Max has an array of the typical superpowers that you might expect from a genetic engineering project: strength, agility, night vision, superior eyesight, perfect memory, advanced hearing, resistance to fatigue, and wild (catlike) reflexes, to name a few. The show reveals that many of these traits resulted from Max’s DNA being spliced with genes from a cat, and plays up her catlike tendencies quite frequently. Sure, cats don’t have superpowers, but they are better at certain things than humans are.
The point where the series departs from reality is subtle: even with advanced genetic editing technology, there is no guarantee that a cat’s genes for certain traits would be “compatible” with a human physiology’s ability to implement those genes. The series hangs a lantern on this inconsistency by revealing the “failed” Manticore soldiers, who are disfigured with a variety of horrific congenital defects that make them appear much closer to the animals that their genes were spliced with than to human.
Of course, genetic engineering doesn’t work like that, either. You’d have to be an imbecile to try to recombine human and cat chromosomes without a substantial amount of pre-editing to prevent the growing of whiskers, which would have to be done anyway in the realistic application of genetic editing technology. But it’s entirely plausible that genetically engineered people could have defects caused by the methods used to create their genomes. With that being said, it is likely that a person receiving a large number of genes from an animal would have some unintended side effects, but not whiskers. Interestingly, the series addresses these defects in a different way, which, in my opinion as a scientist, is actually more likely to occur than they imply.
Negative Side Effects of Genetic Engineering
Max, despite all of her genetically engineered credits, must take nutritional supplements which stave off epilepsy. If Max doesn’t supplement her diet, her metabolic disorder causes seizures. The series pitches this as a side effect of her genetic engineering process, but it misses the mark slightly. The supplement which Max requires is called tryptophan, which in real life is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin. These neurotransmitters are instrumental in many different bodily processes. Serotonin also may play a role in seizures. With that being said, the distortion of Max’s tryptophan biosynthesis pathway caused by genetic engineering would likely have other downstream effects aside from the occasional seizure. It’s hard to see how something so fundamental could be broken without other things being broken as well.
Unlikely, Bordering on Impossible
Another point where Dark Angel departs from reality brings us back to the “cat genes”. Max is supposedly so deeply feline-engineered that she experiences cat behaviors such as going into estrous (heat) multiple times in the course of the series. Fan service aside, the unintentional transference of complicated mammal behaviors such as estrous is extremely unlikely, bordering on impossible. Animal behaviors are extremely complex, and even the simplest of mammal behaviors are governed by a plethora of genes, epigenetic interactions, and environmental factors including learning.
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But Nature Permits No Catastrophic Failures
The successes of the Manticore programs’ augmentations aside, the series entertains the story-line of many failed Manticore transgenics hiding out in the sewers of Seattle, avoiding a society which shuns their deformities. I suppose it’s faintly possible for a failed attempt at genetic engineering to result only in congenital defects, but the reality is actually more merciful. In nature, many mutations are either silent (having no impact on the organism) or loss-of-function (the gene with the mutation ultimately produces a product which performs worse than the canonical version of the gene). Instances of unsuccessful or incomplete genetic engineering would almost certainly result in nonviable fetuses, just as in nature. This goes double for any gene that governs something particularly sensitive, such as metabolism or neural tube development.
Final Thoughts on Dark Angel
Happily, the cyberpunk series Dark Angel shows both sides of the genetic engineering coin, neither encouraging nor shying away from the concept of human meddling with nature. The series also discusses the consequences of human-engineered viruses in depth. Max’s love interest, the Anonymous-esque clandestine investigative journalist named Logan, codename Eyes Only, is targeted by an especially lethal virus that Max is a carrier of, preventing them from touching each other. While our technology is not yet able to generate person-specific viruses, it can’t be ruled out in a near-term future.
The theoretical groundwork on the way such a virus would identify its host is already done, and only engineering challenges remain. Thankfully, as I know as a biologist, the engineering challenges are frequently quite difficult. The vision of biotechnology in Dark Angel seems to agree with me.
Featured Images: 20th Century Fox