After watching Prometheus, I couldn’t resist rambling about some of the scientific failings of the movie. Since I enjoyed putting the “biology” part of my Bachelors of Science to use, I decided to do the same for The Amazing Spider-Man.
But before the science, it’s time for a mini-review. The Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot of the Spider-Man trilogy, which ended on a weak note with Spider-Man 3. Unlike the reboot of the Batman or James Bond series, Spider-Man wasn’t exactly gritty. Certainly it was darker thematically than its predecessors, but not quite so dark as to qualify for the term “gritty”. On a similar note, The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of plot either. Minus the mention of Peter’s parents, the focus on cross-species genetics as the cause of Spidey’s, and the Lizard’s mutations (and that the Lizard is the antagonist rather than the Green Goblin), it doesn’t differ a ton from Tobey McGuire’s Spider-Man. The differences are more superficial, rather than what you’d expect from an ground up reboot. For a more thorough (and spoiler-free!) review, check out my friend Amanda Rudd’s post “They Finally Got It Right: A Review of the Amazing Spider-Man”.
That being said, I found this an entertaining movie and I am looking forward to future sequels. What I especially thought was interesting was how cross-species genetics was cited as the cause for Spidey’s powers. It certainly makes more sense that a bite from a genetically modified spider would result in profound mutations in its victim, rather than the bite of a radioactive spider from the original comics. That doesn’t answer the question of exactly how those unique properties were transferred to Parker, but hey it’s a movie, right?
You might be surprised to learn that cross-species genetics is not merely the stuff of comic books, but it’s a very real and very vital part of modern biology and modern pharmaceuticals. While we can’t make giant lizard men or man-spiders, we can make glow in the dark kittens.
On a more practical note, cross species genetics have been saving lives for decades now. Known as recombinant DNA technology, these are a set of techniques that allow scientists to manipulate DNA, the code containing the recipe for all life. DNA is a funny thing–it can make all of the weird and wonderful shapes we see in nature, but on a basic level it’s all the same thing. My DNA is the same chemically speaking as yours, and both of ours are the same as a spiders. What differs is the DNA sequence–it is the sequence that determines what goes where at what time, be it in a spider, lizard, or a human.
Since DNA is universal across all (Earth) life, and it’s only the sequence that matters in terms of what is expressed, it stands to reason you could mix DNA sequences from one species into the DNA of another and potentially get the foreign DNA expressed. Really, that’s what they were talking about in a basic sense in The Amazing Spider-Man. People have been doing just that sort of thing for decades now, although with less city destroying and more life saving results.
That’s twice now that I’ve said that s0-called cross-species genetics can save lives. You might be wondering what I mean by that, since in the movie that was the whole rationale behind their research as well. We haven’t progressed to the point where we can use these technologies to jab you with a needle and force your arm to grow back, but we can use recombinant DNA technology to produce a variety of life saving chemicals, most famously insulin.
It used to be that insulin was taken from animals like cows and pigs, but this wasn’t a very efficient means of harvesting the stuff in sufficient quantities. In the 1970′s, using recombinant DNA technology, researchers were able to splice the gene for human insulin production into E. Coli bacteria (yes, that E. Coli…it’s a useful lab organism, what can I say?). These new strains of bacteria happily did what bacteria do, all the while pumping out live-saving insulin for the diabetics of the world. Similar techniques are used to make everything from Hepatitis B vaccines to blood clotting factors.
While recombinant DNA technology has saved thousands and thousands of lives over the years, there is a dark side. Similar techniques can be used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which include those adorable kittens up there, but they’re more famous for their role in agriculture. There is a lot of worry about GMO crops out there these days, that somehow they could be harmful to consumers. I’m not certain about that, but their income on the environment when they begin to spread on their own is certainly a cause for concern. The jury is still out.
What we can be certain of is that movie and comic book science have both gotten better over the years. I don’t expect my movies to be scientifically accurate in any way shape or form, but it is always nice when it happens. In this case, the writers took a very real and very beneficial technology and used it to drive the plot behind an entertaining piece of cinema. You can’t go wrong with that :)