Netflix’s Biohackers — What’s real and what’s science fiction (for now)
I am a sucker for a good science fiction TV show and, like many of you, I binge-watched the 6 episodes of Netflix’s german show “Biohackers” in a single day. How could you not? Glowing plants, underwater pills, see-in-the-dark eye drops, killer mosquitos — it’s fun to escape into this futuristic world.
But, how much of it is real?
The show talks about synthetic biology being the future of medicine, and arguably of all technology. Having a background in synthetic biology, naturally, I want to set the record straight on what’s actually backed by science and what’s purely science fiction (at least for now).
What is synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology involves re-designing of organisms to give them new abilities (you could call them superpowers).
One of the most well-known examples of synthetic biology on a commercial scale is the production of insulin.
In the 1920s, researchers Best and Banting extracted insulin from a dog’s pancreas and successfully used it to help regulate blood glucose levels in diabetic patients.
For almost 50 years, insulin was then produced using pigs (and extracting insulin from their pancreas). Not very fun for the pigs. Also, this caused allergic reactions in some diabetic patients.
All you animal lovers will be happy to hear, we don’t do it this way anymore. Scientists were able to insert the human insulin gene into a bacterial cell. So now, all we have to do is grow the bacteria then isolate the human insulin that it produces.
This is a much faster and cheaper process than using pigs. Plus, there were no issues with allergic reactions since this was human insulin, not pig insulin. All thanks to gene editing of the bacteria.
Ok, so now that we’ve established that synthetic biology is a not science fiction, let’s take a look at Netflix’s Biohackers show.
Glow in the dark plants
This is real!
A team of scientists inserted bioluminescent mushroom genes into tobacco plants making them glow. This glow is linked to a major biosynthetic pathway in the plant, meaning, as the plant goes about its day-to-day functions, it is also glowing.
Wouldn’t a world where the streets are illuminated at night by glowing trees be neat?
This is science fiction.
In the Netflix show, these pills were not that successful and that seems to be the case in real-life as well.
I found an article that mentions a spoonful of “aquaman” crystals that could potentially be taken orally to absorb oxygen from water. But, a retraction was posted when scientists a the university realized a calculation error was made. It wasn’t a spoonful, but a 10-liter bucket of crystals that would be required.
Plus, there were absolutely no human studies, this was purely a hypothetical application for the crystal!
This is real! (But, it isn’t synthetic biology).
The show makes this seem a lot more complex than it actually is. In reality, you could make one at home. It is often done with bananas on an electronic prototyping platform, such as Arduino.
Essentially, there is a hidden circuit that the plant must be hooked up to. When you touch the leaf, you change the resistance and therefore the voltage in the electric circuit. The computer will register this difference and play a corresponding sound.
See-in-the-dark eye drops
Yup! This is real!
In 2015, the cancer treatment agent, Chlorin e6 (Ce6), mixed with insulin, was dropped into the eye of Gabriel Licina. For several hours after, he was able to identify people standing in the pitch-dark forest over 50 m away. Something none of the control subjects could do.
The effects were not permanent and Gabriel didn’t show any adverse effects in the following 20 days. A more in-depth study was done in 2019, which showed the mechanism of this phenomenon in the body.
Jasper’s killer mosquitos
In the show, Jasper “genetically modifies” the mosquito to become transmitters of the Coxsackie virus, which affects the muscle of the heart.
The virus can be found in mosquitos from Fiji. But, they are simply carriers of the virus and are not genetically modified as the show implies
But, genetically modified mosquitos are real!
Researchers at Oxitec have been creating genetically modified mosquitos in attempts to lower mosquito populations. The modified mosquitos would outcompete the “natural” mosquitoes, which are carriers of dangerous viruses like the Zika virus.
They carry a gene that makes the female mosquitos (which feed on blood) die before they reach “the biting age”. The males, which feed on only nectar, would not be affected.
Rogue scientists with no morals
The show addresses some moral concerns when Dr. Lorenz runs experiments without the approval of an ethics committee.
As much as I would like to say this never happens, it does. There are scientists who believe that ethics boards stand in the way of progress and are slowing down technology development.
It is imperative that approval protocols are followed and new protocols are developed as technologies are changing.
Netflix’s Biohackers features many interesting technologies but, not all of these technologies can be classified as synthetic biology or genetic engineering. Many concepts are much simpler than portrayed in the show.
Did I miss anything? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.