The not-so-weird science behind Splice

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

Sarah Polley and creature in Splice
Image caption,
The creature in Splice is named Dren - try spelling it backwards

Inspired by the experiment in the 1990s that saw a mouse grow a "human ear" on its back, Splice tells the familiar story of scientists who create something strange - and slimey - in the lab.

"I kept the science as real as possible because there was no reason for it not to be real," says the film's director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali.

In the film, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play genetic engineers who specialise in splicing DNA from different animals to create new hybrids.

When the company that funds their research forbids the use of human DNA for a hybrid creature, the scientists continue their work in secret.

The result is Dren (played by Delphine Chaneac), a humanoid creature that grows rapidly and displays some unexpected physical developments - such as wings and a stinging tail.

We asked someone who splices DNA in the real world - Dr Jennifer Rohn - to assess the science behind the science fiction.

Why do you splice?

Image caption,
Dr Jennifer Rohn edits the science website

Imagine a human gene fused to that of a jellyfish, spliced neatly into the DNA of a bacterium.

It may sound like science fiction, but I made such a chimera last week to foster my research on how cancer cells change shape and migrate inappropriately around the body.

The splicing of human with non-human genetic material has been a routine tool since the recombinant DNA revolution of the 70s.

Technology has also made it possible to engineer human DNA in living animals, either for basic research or, more recently, to produce large quantities of proteins used as medicine.

Is splicing easy?

The film Splice made it sound as if joining the DNA of different species is intrinsically difficult.

In reality, this is a misconception: all living things share the same genetic material, so there is no technical impediment to cutting and pasting together whatever you want regardless of its origin.

On the other hand, it would indeed be difficult to create extreme hybrids stable enough to survive. It's still technically challenging even to clone exact copies of higher mammals, Dolly the Sheep's fame notwithstanding.

Does Splice get it right?

Image caption,
It's alive! Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody play the wayward scientists

Where Splice did excel was in portraying the atmosphere of the modern lab.

The scientists are casually dressed, mostly young and are shown interacting, joking and bantering as scientists the world over are wont to do.

Far from occurring in a solitary ivory tower, science is a communal endeavour shaped by collaboration and competition, camaraderie and ambition, passion and drive.

We are shown researchers fighting over the music (as when one tells the other that the experiment isn't working because of her "fascist" German techno pop, and reaches over to put on some jazz) and zooming across the lab on wheeled chairs munching slices of pizza and boxes of takeaway Chinese noodles.

Although the acronym of the biotech company's name spells out NERD, these scientists are anything but - they even have sex with one another, for pity's sake.

How exciting were all those test tubes?

Image caption,
Dren is a blend of human and visual effects

I was positively drooling with envy over the lab kit. The fateful hybrid experiment sets off with a single Eppendorf tube set lovingly afloat in a gleaming digital water bath.

We also see beautiful flow hoods, centrifuges, shakers and all the expected accoutrement of a modern molecular genetics lab - if they had shown any bubbling, smoking liquids or Van der Graaf generators, I would have been out of there.

And unlike Sigourney Weaver's scientist character in Avatar, it's clear that the actors were trained by someone competent on how to use their hand-held pipetting devices.

Have we seen it all before?

But although the scientists in Splice don't look stereotypical, I was disappointed to find that the science itself, and the underlying message of the film, followed the same well-worn patterns that science fiction films have embraced since the invention of cinema - scientists are well-meaning but ultimately hubristic creatures who lose control of their experiments when they "cross a line" meddling with things that Man Was Not Meant To Know.

Of course it's more fun to watch that way, but the ceaseless repetition of this theme is irritating to me as a scientist.

My profession involves a lot of sacrifices - we work hard and receive a fraction of the pay commanded by most other highly trained professionals, all in aid of increasing knowledge for the benefit of mankind.

Yet we are usually cast as troublemakers and hardly ever get to be true Hollywood heroes untainted by any prior experimental mishaps.

Splice opens in the UK on 23 July.

Scientist and science writer Dr Jennifer Rohn has 15 years of research experience in the fields of virology, cell biology, cancer and gene therapy. She edits the website which looks at the portrayal of science in the media and popular culture. She is also the author of two novels about scientists: Experimental Heart (2008) and The Honest Look, due out October 2010.

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