Uh oh, there’s a disorderly Deadpool in the gene pool

Precision genetic editing may be the most significant development in molecular biology in the past 50 years. It offers promising new therapies for otherwise incurable diseases, and ways of shaping the world around us for the betterment not just of humanity but of the environment too.

But CRISPR-Cas9,the technique at the heart of this breakthrough, has developed some unforeseen complications, putting it into a boat of unintended gene-related consequences shared last week by no less an unlikely fellow creek-paddler than the family entertainment mega giant, Disney.

Disney is dealing with its own genetic headache right now, thanks to its merger with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.

In the $71-billion deal, Disney does not get Fox News, the so-right-it’s-wrong network news channel so beloved of the US president. What it does get, among other things, are all the genetically superpowered mutants that Marvel sold to Fox in the 1990s, well before its own acquisition by Disney nearly 10 years ago.

Back into the fold come Magneto, Professor X and the rest of the X-Men — beloved comic book characters who will be a good fit for the family-friendly megacorp. We may finally see Wolverine join the Avengers, or a Wakandan wedding between T’Challa and Storm.

Unfortunately for Disney, though, the deal also includes Deadpool.

A psycho mutant mercenary with a mouth as foul as his sense of humour, Deadpool’s films are slick and very, very funny. What they are most certainly not, however, is family friendly.

Technically the superpower conferred on the foul-mouthed mutant by his X gene is the ability to regenerate rapidly when injured, but it might just as well be his ability to pack as much depravity and profanity into a 90-minute movie as possible.

And now the House of Mouse finds itself the owner of a successful film franchise built on exactly the kind of displays of depravity and profanity that led it to fire Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn just a few weeks ago. On the one hand: pots of money. On the other: children in therapy for the rest of their lives. What is Disney to do?

Protein torpedo

The genetic migraine brought about by unintended consequences is of a different order in the world of molecular biology and CRISPR-Cas9. Short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”, CRISPR is, strictly speaking, a family of DNA sequences found in certain single-celled microbes. As it occurs in the wild, CRISPR is the system by which bacteria “remember” the attacks of viruses they encounter, filing away a tiny bit of the attacker’s DNA in its own genetic library.

READ MORE: Scientists now creating exotic ‘mutant mice’ with ease

The next time the virus attacks, its DNA is hauled out of storage and used to weaponise an enzyme called Cas-9. This little protein torpedo uses the retrieved sample to seek out and destroy its match in the virus’s genome, which then neutralises the virus.

But by manually loading DNA to CRISPR, researchers discovered in 2012 that they could programme the Cas-9 to edit specific genes in other organisms, with pinpoint precision.

This technique has helped scientists to accomplish incredible feats of genetic engineering. In one project, scientists completely eliminated HIV infections in mice. In another, researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 to switch off mosquitoes’ ability to reproduce, leading to a cascading colony collapse that in the field would halt the spread of diseases such as Zika or malaria.

It has been used to cause viruses to self-destruct, to slow the growth of cancer and, in the field of alternative energy, to engineer strains of algae to produce double their normal amount of biofuel. No top-secret Weapon-X super-soldier projects that we know of. So far.

CRISPR-Cas9’s responsible use has been welcomed as an important stride in medical research and molecular biology. Especially after researchers at the University of California developed an “off” switch in 2016.

But the shine is starting to wear off. A study published in the July 16 edition of Nature Biotechnology, titled “Repair of double-strand breaks induced by CRISPR-Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements” observes that the technique’s effects lead to “complex genomic rearrangements at the targeted sites”.

The research team from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom found that the technique damaged genomes in unexpected ways — not just in mice stem cells but also in human cell lines — and warned of unintended and harmful pathogenic consequences.

More research is needed to figure out whether these effects can be predicted and managed, but it is a significant speed bump in CRISPR-Cas9’s otherwise spectacular development.

As for Deadpool, what Disney will do with its gift-wrapped psychopathic merc-with-a-mouth remains to be seen. Chances are they’re searching frantically for their own off switch.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Matthew Du Plessis
Matthew du Plessis is the Mail & Guardian's former managing editor and chair of the Adamela Trust. He writes on the environment, dinosaurs, particle accelerators, evolutionary anthropology, genomics and super-continental fields of molten lava.

Related stories

Australian media challenge ‘unprecedented’ contempt charges over Pell reporting

Twenty-three journalists and 13 media companies face fines and prison terms for allegedly breaching a gag order

‘Captain Marvel’ soars to rarefied heights in opening

The film, which opened on International Women's Day, was co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Turkey reportedly investigating Fox News journalist

Fatih Portakal is being investigated for "openly inciting others to commit a crime"

Stan Lee, Marvel legend and father of superheroes, dies at 95

Lee rose through the ranks to become a comics writer — making millions of superhero fans dream of his fantastic universes

Bionic mushrooms are a thing now

Scientists have the technology (and apparently the inclination) to make fungus better, stronger, faster

New light on old civilisations

Scientists are remapping the stories of ancient civilisations by shooting them with lasers

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Journey through anxious Joburg

A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South

Football legend Maradona dies

The Argentinian icon died at his home on Wednesday, two weeks after having surgery on a blood clot in his brain

Why no vaccine at all is better than a botched...

As Covid vaccines near the manufacturing stage, a look at two polio vaccines provides valuable historical insights

Under cover of Covid, Uganda targets LGBTQ+ shelter

Pandemic rules were used to justify a violent raid on a homeless shelter in Uganda, but a group of victims is pursuing a criminal case against the perpetrators

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…