Gene editing techniques like CRISPR have made it into Marvel’s newest superhero TV show.
In “Jessica Jones,” which debuted last month on Netflix, the series’ main villain, Kilgrave, has everything to do with some form of gene editing.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the show through episode 10, this may give away some of the plot, but only around Kilgrave and his superpower.)
At one point, Jessica Jones — the superhero tasked with stopping Kilgrave — sees some scary video footage from a clip on a USB drive.
In it, Kilgrave’s parents are taking samples of his spinal fluid and running tests on him, leading Jones to think they’re evil. Unbeknownst to Jones, however, the parents are actually trying to save their son, who has a neurodegenerative disease which is causing his brain cells to decay.
“He would have been dead before he reached 12,” his mum says on a later episode. “His only hope was an experimental study using a virus to repair his damaged DNA.”
While it’s a fictional show, the premise has some scientific grounding.
The ‘experimental study she speaks of isn’t far off from how actual gene editing has worked in the past. Gene therapy, for example, frequently involves using a virus to deliver a gene to the cells that scientists are targeting. In the US, no gene therapies have yet been approved for use, although scientists have been working with them for years and made some headway in a few promising cases.
Most of these experiments involve working with embryos, however, not with adults, as the show might suggest.
That’s so that the tweaks that are made spread to the entire organism, rather than affecting only a small group of cells. In Kilgrave’s case, for example, the gene therapy would need to be done extensively until all of his millions of affected cells were treated, something that’s quite unlikely.
In the end, as we learn in “Jessica Jones” episode 9, the treatment worked, though it came with some serious side effects, namely superhero-level powers of compulsion.
That power to compel is transmitted through a virus that Kilgrave sheds. The virus infects the people around him, allowing him to tell them a specific command (example: If Kilgrave says “Follow me,” you’d have to follow him regardless of whether you wanted to).
Although the show doesn’t explicitly say it, the virus is likely linked to the virus used in Kilgrave’s gene editing therapy.
Of course, while you could engineer people to be more persuasive, “there’s no way to shoot out a virus and make people do what you want,” NYU School of Medicine Director of Medical Ethics Arthur Caplan told Business Insider.
Caplan said the best bet for super powers through gene editing would be greater muscle strength, better memory, quicker reaction times, better night vision, and turning up receptors to experience things like alcohol, drugs, and sex more intensely.
Sorry, no powers of invisibility just yet.
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