Popular Mechanics talks about the science of Episode 202… by Erin McCarthy
Fringe’s Human Mutant Not Possible, Says Expert
In “The Night of Desirable Objects,” Agent Olivia Dunham—sidelined by a car accident last week—traded her hospital gown for a gun and dove right back into the action. Fringe has already flirted with genetic mutation in animals, but this week, Dunham, mad scientist Walter Bishop, and his son, Peter, dealt with an actual mutant—and not one of the fuzzy X-Men variety. PM sat down with Dr. Richard Myers of Stanford University’s Department of Genetics and the president and director of the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology to find out if real-life mutants are possible.
When Peter Bishop stumbles upon six mysterious disappearances in the small town of Lansdale, Pa., he thinks he may have found a pattern: Could these people be disappearing the same way Olivia Dunham did? So he, Dunham and mad scientist Walter head down to Lansdale to check it out—and find an already-in-progress investigation of a seventh disappearance. Found on the scene was a puddle of goo that paralyzes Walter’s hand. It turns out the substance in question is mutated human DNA. It makes the disappearances begin to look less like trips to an alternate universe—which is where Dunham went, even though she can’t remember—and more like a case of Fringe science gone wrong.
The one common thread between all the disappearances is a Dr. Hughes, who tells Dunham that he could never kill anyone because he lost his wife and son 17 years ago. But when they exhume the bodies, the baby’s coffin is empty—and underneath is a hole burrowed deep into the ground.
Back in his Harvard lab, Walter determines that Mrs. Hughes had systemic lupus erythematosus, which meant that “she was incapable of producing offspring” because “lupus results in an overactive immune system” that would have killed the baby before she could carry to term. Unless, of course, her husband—a doctor who studied reproductive biology and gene replacement—replaced some of the baby’s DNA with that of other species so it would survive. Upon examination of the afterbirth (still in Mrs. Hughes’ womb), Walter finds that, indeed, the baby was not entirely human; in fact, Dr. Hughes had altered the baby inside the womb with scorpion and mole rat DNA. This is how the child got its ability to tunnel and paralyze its prey.
According to Myers, lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes the infected individual’s immune system to attack its own cells. Symptoms include inflammation that occur in flares in some organs. And, it’s true, lupus can affect pregnancy. “Women with lupus who get pregnant have trouble with their pregnancies,” Myers says. “Many are lost, and in some cases the autoimmunity is passed on to the newborn child.”
But, the idea that adding DNA from different species to a human fetus would have helped doesn’t quite jibe, Myers says. “By making the fetus more foreign, you might expect the child’s immune system to attack the foreign proteins, which would be made by the other species’ DNA,” he says. “It’s possible the writer meant that the foreign genes would be ones that coded for the other species’ immune genes, in which case, I suppose you could say that this might prevent the autoimmune attacks. But overall, the logic seemed a bit tortured, at least from the biological point of view.”
According to Myers, scientists have added genetically manipulated DNA to the fertilized eggs of mice and other animals in order to better understand genetic diseases and ailments such as cancer, and to create drugs to treat them. “These manipulations include adding exogenous DNA—including from another species, such as human—or, alternatively, causing the mouse’s own DNA to be altered,” Myers says. This makes it possible to correct a mouse’s defective or mutated gene, or even to cause a mutation that leads to disease. But “adding a human gene to a mouse, or even replacing a mouse’s gene with a human version of that gene, doesn’t turn it into a human,” Myers says. “It can change the mouse so that a small part of its biology has characteristics of the human. But realize, we and mice have more than 20,000 different genes, and changing one, or even hundreds, of mouse genes to the human version wouldn’t come close to turning the mouse into a human.”
Though Myers doesn’t know of anyone who has made human embryos with altered DNA, it’s likely experiments similar to those in mice could be done, he says. And a healthy baby might even come of it, if the foreign DNA integrated in a nonessential place. “But think about when or why such an experiment would be done,” Myers says. “The embryos would have to be implanted in a woman, and only a very few would survive. Then you’d wait for a baby to be born, if it survived that long, and it’s likely that other things could be very wrong, even if the DNA added was meant to correct a mutation like sickle cell anemia. To most of us geneticists, we think this is far too risky and shouldn’t be done, or even tried. It’s likely that more problems would be caused than just fixing the mutation.”
And just as in mice, adding a few genes from different species to a human embryo wouldn’t cause it to take on the characteristics of that species. Burrowing like a mole rat, for example, is a behavior that is the product of thousands of genes—”none of which we know or understand, because behaviors are incredibly complex, and we know only a small number of genes that contribute to any behaviors,” Myers says. And because adding too much DNA can cause unbalanced chromosomes, adding thousands of mole rat or insect genes to a human embryo would kill the embryo and not lead to a living human being, Myers says.
Add it all up, and the answer is clear: We won’t ever have to worry about Fringe’s part-mole-rat, part-scorpion, part-human mutant in real life because it’s not within the realm of possibility. “But I don’t think it was completely off-base to consider what would happen if we manipulated a human embryo extensively, but took care to make it viable,” Myers says. “For instance, instead of just adding a bunch of DNA from another species, if you changed multiple human genes slightly so that they are like another species’ genes—if this was possible—you might get a viable human that would have some different traits than other humans. These would be mild differences, like being less susceptible to an infectious disease, and not likely to be drastic morphological or behavioral trait differences. Such drastic changes would probably not be viable, but imagining them makes for pretty good science fiction. Nevertheless, I don’t think such experiments should ever be done, as they wouldn’t serve to help alleviate human suffering and they’d likely be dangerous, in that they would lead to lethality and/or serious disease.”