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This edition: Season 2, Episode 9: "X-Men: Apocalypse"

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 29, 2016.

First aired: May 13, 2016.

In episode #209 of Science Goes to the Movies, Hemali Phatnani, the Director of the Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease, and Joseph Pickrell, Assistant Investigator and Core Member of The New York Genome Center, join the show to talk about “X-Men: Apocalypse,” released in May 2016.

To start, Phatnani provides a definition of mutation, and Pickrell explains the process through multiple generations of how a genetic variant becomes a mutation, including the way in which each individual organism or life form can be considered a mutant.

The significance of blue skin in the X-Men franchise, as well as the occurrence of blue skin in real life, is considered next. Actual family members with a recessive disorder that caused their skin to take on the blue color of veins is explained, as well as the effect of interracial and cross-cultural coupling on the frequency of mutation.

The way in which chemicals can alter the structure of DNA is next, such as in the inciting incident of the television show, The Flash. This is compared to what has been seen from survivors of the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This leads to a discussion of why certain mutations are passed onto children but not others. The way in which errors naturally occur as DNA molecules replicate themselves is described, also, as a source of mutation, as well as how the number of cells will determine the likelihood of mutation.

A 2012 study of how a bacterial system could be used to engineer genomes provides the next part of the discussion. In particular, Pickrell breaks down the progress that has been made on altering variants within the genetic code, including recent research on Sickle Cell Disease. The realism of engineering “superhero” abilities into human beings is assessed, as well as the ethical dilemmas that come with altering genetic code to improve, for example, intelligence.

Next, Faith Salie shares her experience playing Serena Douglas, a genetically enhanced character on Star Trek whose cerebral cortex was improved to the point that it became out of sync with her auditory and visual intake. The negative consequences of mutations that, at first, appear to be major improvements, is considered next, with Pickrell offering the example of a real-life mutation that eliminates pain.

The way in which science-based films like X-Men: Apocalypse can shape what people expect from science is next – Pickrell weighs in on how films oversimplify the length and complexity of scientific progress, and Phantnani considers that while such films can make an audience feel the possibilities of science they also invite unrealistic expectations.

The 2014 documentary, The Boy From Geita, about the recent violence faced by African children with the mutation of albinism, is discussed next, opening a conversation about why science doesn’t have the reach to combat dangerous superstitions in certain portions of the global population, and how mutants in the real world are viewed and treated.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Hemali Phatnani Director, The Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease

Joseph Pickrell Assistant Investigator & Core Member, New York Genome Center

Web Extras

Rate of Mutation Over Time

The hosts and guests talk Epigenetics and the shifting rate of mutation in humans over time.

Good Mutations Versus Bad Ones

The guests differentiate advantageous mutations from harmful ones.

Real Life Superheroes

The hosts and guests discuss examples of real-life mutants with exceptional abilities.