Hard Scifi Flick "Splice" Actually Based on Internet-Rumor Science

Illustration for article titled Hard Scifi Flick "Splice" Actually Based on Internet-Rumor Science

Turns out that the hard science underpinning Splice, a forthcoming flick about genetic engineering directed by Vincenzo "Cube" Natali, is actually not so hard. In a recent interview, the director claims his inspiration to do a genetic chimera movie was seeing a now-famous image of a mouse with a human ear grafted onto its back. "It was such a crazy, shocking weird image that I was inspired to write a story about genetic splicing," he said. Unfortunately, what he saw wasn't genetic splicing at all.


Peggy from Biology in Science Fiction writes:

The experiment that Natali is remembering is probably the work of Joseph and Charles Vacanti of the Tissue Engineering & Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Back in 1997 their photo of a mouse with a human ear-shaped growth on its back made a splash in the popular media. It's no wonder that it caught Natali's attention.

He apparently didn't pay much attention to the story attached with the picture, though, because the experiment had absolutely nothing to do with genetic engineering. What the Vacantis and colleagues actually did was form a biodegradable polymer into the shape of a human ear, seed it with cow cartilage cells (bovine chondrocytes), and implant it under the skin of the experimental mice1. They found that new cartilage formed in the shape of the implant. And it turns out their methodology had immediate real-world applications. They used similar techniques to grow a "shield" in the chest of boy who was born with no cartilage or bone between his skin and heart. They also were able to grow a replacement thumb tip using a scaffold made of coral. It's very cool tissue engineering technology.

It isn't that surprising that Natali thinks that genetic engineering was involved. He may have seen the full page ad in the New York Times placed by the anti-biotechnology group the Turning Point Project, which (according to Wikipedia) showed the picture of the ear-bearing mouse with the description "This is an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse with a human ear on its back." The image also made the email chain letter rounds with similarly misleading information.

I have no problem with people basing science fiction on bizarre and non-existent science. But if that's the case, then don't make a big deal about how the movie is based on real, hard science. Don't give us the "it could really happen" gloss that I've seen in a lot of Splice promo which throws around scientific terms like "chimera" to describe the monster. C'mon. This is just another mad science monster with no scientific basis at all. Just tell us a good story and leave it at that.

Splice: Rock and Roll Geneticists and the Horror of Genetic Engineering [Biology in Science Fiction]


Annalee Newitz

@goldfarb: I agree that most movies are produced to make money, but they'll only make money if they are entertaining and catch people's imaginations. One way to catch our imaginations is to take actually-existing science and spin out a plausible scenario. For example, 28 Days Later gives us a somewhat plausible scenario in terms of how a supervirus could ravage a population in a large urban center. OK, the "zombie" part is far-fetched, but that's the fun, entertaining part. I'm just saying that if you want to call something hard science, at least make more of an effort to base it on real experiments — after all, there have been chimeras developed in the lab. Even mice with human brain cells! I've always wanted to see a movie that did something cool with that scenario.