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How CRISPR Made it Onto 'The X-Files'

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"The X-Files" lives! (FOX)

"The X-Files" revival has gotten some big ratings. Clearly a lot of fans (if not critics) are over the moon at its return, as this Twitter search on "X-Files Best Show Ever" will attest.

As much as we'd love to jump on the bandwagon and cover the infiltration of alien DNA in our genome, the funding isn't quite there, yet. Luckily, the inclusion of CRISPR/Cas9 as a major plot point in the season finale Monday does give us a convenient excuse to get in on the action.

CRISPR/Cas9, as we have been writing about,  is a cutting-edge gene-editing technique that has been heralded as a breakthrough technology, inspiring high expectations for -- as well as warnings about -- potential uses.

X-Files science advisor Anne Simon and David Duchovny in Vancouver, August 2015.
X-Files science advisor Anne Simon and David Duchovny in Vancouver, August 2015. (Courtesy Anne Simon)

Anne Simon, a University of Maryland virologist who also happens to be a science advisor on "The X-Files," has taken note. She co-wrote the finale's story, along with microbiologist Margaret Fearon and show creator Chris Carter. The plot involves humans who are stripped of their immune systems. This is accomplished via CRISPR/Cas9.

"He asked me to come up with something that would kill off everybody," she said of Carter Wednesday. "That took a lot of thought. It had to be something simple enough to get across to the public. I began thinking if you just got rid of the ADA gene -- I teach this -- you would not have an immune system. That’s the Boy in the Bubble syndrome. The idea is that a long time ago [the aliens and human conspirators] must have put something in our genome that would get rid of the gene."


(In the show, the mechanism for introducing alien DNA  into the human genome is the smallpox vaccine, which "doubtless made Jenny McCarthy the happiest 'X-Files' viewer of the night," wrote a Yahoo! TV critic.)

Simon said she and co-writer Fearon had to do a lot of explaining to Carter as to how CRISPR works.

"Between the two of us we’re trying to explain it to him on the phone and showing him YouTube videos and stuff, and he kind of gets it."

She said she looked at the script every day to check on the science. "It really is accurate. I was happy at the end."

Accurate within the bounds of sci-fi/conspiracy theory, of course. Simon said she suggested the story have the mass gene deletion triggered by the increase in CO2 -- global warming. But Carter opted to make the triggering mechanism ...  chemtrails.

"Chris wanted to use chemtrails, which is big in conspiracy theories. I don’t even know what it is," Simon said.

She first connected with Carter, back in the day, through a family connection. "He  needed to talk to a biologist. I thought, 'We'll get the microscopes right."

At one point, Carter named a character after Simon, but her fictional self was short-lived. "I had visions of her being Scully and Mulder’s partner, and helping them solve cases scientifically. And then I get killed off. "

She thinks the character of Dana Scully has been great for encouraging female scientists.

"She has been a wonderful draw for young people. I hear from so many people over Twitter who say they went into science because of 'The X-Files.'

Whether the show comes back for more episodes is still an open question. But the signs are encouraging.  FOX, no doubt, is suggesting we all stay tuned.

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