Jurassic World Dominion: Science Fiction or Complete Bullsh*t?

Taken from https://www.universalpictures.com/movies/jurassic-world-dominion

The Jurassic World trilogy of films, as well as its predecessor, the Jurassic Park trilogy are inspired from the 1990 novel written by Michael Crichton, a renowned science fiction author. Now known as Crichton’s signature novel, Jurassic Park was actually inspired by scientific research conducted in the past. In a study released in 1982, George O. Poinar, Jr. and his colleagues investigated a fruit fly embedded in amber, and found that the amber has preserved many intracellular structures of the fruit fly. For those who have watched Jurassic park, you surely would have identified the parallels between the actual scientific research and science fiction. Even though it still is impossible to extract deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic ‘blueprint’ of an organism, from samples which has lived millions of years ago, the fact that the idea simply exaggerates current scientific research makes it believable, lending legitimacy to the narrative’s scientific backbone.

Now, as the sixth installment of the Jurassic Park film series has just been released, let’s find out if the writers have managed to maintain that scientific realism of the original story.

Giant Locusts?

Its HUGE. Image taken from collider.com/jurassic-world-dominion-giant-locusts/

One of the key plot points of the film is the fact that giant locusts genetically designed by Biosyn Genetics, a corrupt biogenetics corporation researching and utilising dinosaur genes, have ravaged crop fields internationally, eating all but Biosyn crops in order to increase demand for their seeds. However, because of mistakes in the genetic engineering process, the locusts have spread uncontrollably, which will inevitably result in a worldwide famine.

Putting aside the question of how such ‘mistakes’ are released into the environment because movie logic would easily fill that in, there is another fundamental problem with having huge locusts, and that is that they are unable to breathe properly.

However, ‘breathe’ might not be the best word to use in this context because insects do not have lungs. They use tiny tubes called tracheae all around the body which allows gases to diffuse across and reach body tissues, enabling respiration. However, diffusion occurs a lot more slowly as the distance in which gases have to diffuse across increases, because it takes a longer time for air molecules to travel through that distance. With the genetically engineered giant locust looking really big and fat, they would simply asphyxiate if unable to employ a different mechanism for gaseous exchange.

Moreover, by scaling up the size of 3D objects, locusts no less, its surface area to volume ratio decreases. To visualise it mathematically, imagine a sphere of radius r. That sphere will have a volume of (4/3)πr³ and an area of 4πr². If you double the sphere’s radius, the volume would increase by 8 times, while the area would increase only by 4 times. Insects, requiring a higher surface area to accommodate more tracheae for efficient gaseous diffusion would suffer from a mere ‘upscaling’, becoming more lethargic and slow, eventually being outcompeted by the smaller insects.

Gargantuan locusts do contribute to the horror aspect of the film, and fit in the dinosaur theme quite nicely, but scientifically speaking are bogus.

Gene therapy?

A young Charlotte Lockwood. Taken from https://jurassicpark.fandom.com/wiki/Charlotte_Lockwood

The science of the original Jurassic Park revolves around cloning, an application of today’s cutting edge genetic engineering technologies where a genetically identical copy of an organism is created, in this case, artificially. A well-known example in scientific literature is Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. In Crichton’s sci-fi world, ancient dinosaur DNA is extracted from mosquitoes preserved in amber, which is then used to clone dinosaurs.

Cloning is also featured in Jurassic Park Dominion, but instead of dinosaur clones, the focus is now on human clones. In the movie, it is revealed that Charlotte Lockwood, a brilliant scientist then, used her own DNA to clone a baby which she carried. The baby is none other than one of the female protagonists, Maisie Lockwood. However, Charlotte suffered from a rare genetic disease, limiting her lifespan. Wanting her baby to live a full life in her place, she altered Maisie’s DNA (which is identical to her own) such that the genetic disease no longer existed by using a ‘pathogen’ which edits the DNA of all her cells in her body. Interestingly, Charlotte did not edit the the DNA of the zygote, which exists at the very start of embryonic development, and instead used the novel ‘pathogen’ to perform the genetic editing during a later stage in embryonic development. This is evident in the movie, as Dr Henry Wu, Charlotte’s former colleague, explained that Maisie’s and Charlotte’s DNA were once identical, but not anymore.

Firstly, the ethical issues around both cloning a human and editing his/her DNA must be addressed. There are countless ethical and safety concerns linked to human clones, and very few reasons to do so in the first place (and no, hoping the new version of yourself to live a full life is not a legit reason), as the same scientific studies can be conducted without cloning a person in his/her entirety. Instead, certain cells, tissues or even organs can be constructed using cloning techniques, without the need to deal with the controversial issues such as consciousness and identity. Editing a person’s DNA is also extremely unethical. In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he has created the first human genetically edited babies, from research which he has been conducting in secret. He claims that he has successfully removed the CCR5 gene from the embryo’s genome to confer immunity to HIV, in order to help people with HIV-related fertility problems. However, soon after, he received international condemnation, is sentenced to 3 years of jail and received a heavy fine. Having committed ethical crimes of both human cloning and human DNA editing, Charlotte would be shunned from the international scientific community and thrown into prison for a long time, if she was still alive. The movie seems to portray her as a brilliant female scientist with a tragic end, but in reality, she is a worse version of He Jiankui who deserves no pity.

The second big question mark presents itself as Charlotte uses a ‘pathogen’ to edit the DNA of all the cells in the embryo/fetus (It isn’t mentioned when the editing was performed). If you ask any biologist specialising in genetic engineering, this idea is ludicrous and virtually impossible. The closest concept which exists, although not commonly in practice now, is gene therapy, which does use a vector (virus, bacterium, plasmid, etc.) to deliver a specific genetic sequence to specific cells in the body, either killing the cell, reprogramming the cell to produce certain proteins or inhibiting certain genes from activating. However, targeting the correct cells, activating the inserted genes and other side effects are difficult hurdles for scientists to overcome.

Gene therapy diagram. Taken from https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-gene-therapy

By extension, using a vector to transfer DNA to every single cell in the body just sounds crazy. What receptors are these vectors going to look out for? How can these vectors be transported around to every part the body? A newborn baby already has more than a trillion cells — how can every single one be infected? It is difficult even to find the answer to one of these questions.

Conclusion: Charlotte Lockwood is probably spouting bullsh*t.

Locust Control?

Nearing the movie’s end, Dr Wu claims to have drawn inspiration from Charlotte’s work to design a pathogen to wipe out the giant locusts which have taken over crop fields around the world. It isn’t specifically mentioned how Charlotte’s pathogenic genetic engineering technique is linked to the pathogens Dr Wu used, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and call it ‘movie science’ for now.

The thing is, it is challenging to drive a species into extinction using pathogens, or disease. In theory, the presence of diseases is a density-dependent factor which limits population growth. This is because a denser population allows for greater spread of diseases, causing more individuals in the population to succumb to the pathogen, while the converse is also true. As a result, diseases, as well as other density-dependent factors regulate populations from growing indefinitely, but do not drive the species to extinction.

That being said, there is evidence of diseases driving certain species to extinction. Current examples include amphibian chytridiomycosis and Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), which are threatening to cause species extinctions in Australia. However, these are unique cases where the pathogen transmission depend weakly on the population density. Moreover, other threats such as climate change and habitat fragmentation also contribute to endangering the species. In the case of the giant locusts which terrorize farmers around the world, it would be difficult for a pathogen to wipe them out, due to the sheer size and distribution of the population.

My guess is that the writer drew inspiration from ‘gene drive’, a genetic engineering technique used to spread a specific gene across an entire population. To start a gene drive, the researcher genetically engineers an organism, inserting or replacing a special genetic sequence into one of the chromosomes. This sequence includes the CRISPR segment, a gene editing tool, as well as the target modified gene. When the organism’s offspring inherits the modified chromosome, the CRISPR segment will target a segment of DNA on the other chromosome and cut it. The cell will recognize the cut as an error, and repair it using the other chromosome as the template, which has the modified gene. This causes the offspring to have the modified gene on each chromosome, and hence have a 100% chance of passing it to the next generation. Resultingly, the gene would quickly spread throughout the population. The gene could then cause the individual to slowly die off from various mechanisms.

Gene drive diagram. Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_drive#/media/File:Gene_Drive.png

There are numerous methods for pest population control, but I felt that the writer has managed to confuse different methods with one another, creating a mess out of it all. Furthermore, Dr Wu at one point said that releasing one of such locust would cause a collapse of global populations, which really shows that he is either the most optimistic person in the world, or a fraud who doesn’t know what he is doing.

Conclusion

Jurassic World Dominion has introduced some fresh and interesting scientific concepts to explore, but in my opinion has done so poorly. Critics and audience members have given it poor reviews in general, and I’m sure that the low level of attention given to scientific realism has made it hard for the audience to make sense of things. A good sci-fi aspect of the movie contributes to how believable the scenes are and how invested the audience is to the characters and plot. To achieve that, the science has to first be grounded in facts, and like a bungee cord, stretched to a point of thrill, not snapping in the process. Some of Jurassic World Dominion’s predecessors have done well in that regard, but unfortunately the most recent installment has flopped.

References

  1. Scudellari, Megan (2019). Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives. Nature, 571(7764), 160–162. doi:10.1038/d41586–019–02087–5
  2. McCallum H. (2012). Disease and the dynamics of extinction. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 367(1604), 2828–2839. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0224

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Yeo Shen Yong

Yeo Shen Yong

Critically analysing life a lot more than I should.