Pesky ethics is the biggest obstacle.
By Corey Plante
Spider-Man has never been the most scientifically accurate superhero (we’re pretty sure getting bit by a radioactive spider won’t give you powers, but one detail in the recently released PlayStation 4 video game actually makes a good deal of scientific sense. We’re talking about Devil’s Breath, an imperfect medical serum designed by Norman Osborn that Doc Oc uses to infect all of New York City with a deadly contagion.
In the game, Devil’s Breath is created to cure genetic abnormalities. In our own world and that of Spider-Man, the only thing stopping this kind of technology from thriving are the limits put on scientists by ethical laws. While on a mission, Spidey learns that the substance GR-27, nicknamed Devil’s Breath, “pairs CRISPR genome editing with A.I.-controlled gRNA to identify and replace genetic mutations and errors.” We’re talking about editing DNA at the genetic level using artificial intelligence.
Peter Parker, a master scientist himself, is quickly able to deduce that, in theory, this substance could cure any genetic disease including the likes of cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s — or the super-rare Oshtoran Syndrome that Norman Osborn’s wife and son are afflicted with.
Except, an unexplained malfunction of this early version of the serum transforms it into a potent chemical weapon because the “viral delivery mechanism incorrectly targets the immune system.” So the human body would tear itself apart from the inside out before it could heal the genetic issues.
But does any of the science behind this check out?
CRISPR — “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” — commonly refers to a process that allows for the targeted editing of DNA sequences to modify gene function. In November 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed to have edited the genes of two baby girls.
In the U.S., editing an embryo’s genes with the intention of letting it grow into a full human is illegal, but totally possible. Generally speaking, genetic modification is frowned upon as unethical, as it could lead to “designer babies” if the practice went mainstream. Basically, everyone who could afford it would rewrite their baby’s DNA to make them better.
But an airborne substance capable of modifying a fully-grown human at the genetic level presents an even more complex scientific problem. It’s a problem scientists have been working on for years, and it seems like it might be possible at some point.
Some genetic researchers have already explored the use of A.I gRNA to help map the human genome. So in theory, all of the technologies scientists would need to create the real-life Devil’s Breath seems within reach, but we’re years away from seeing anything similar.
Let’s hope that remains the case.
This December, Inverse is counting down the 20 best science moments in science fiction this year.
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