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A scientist’s view on ReGenesis

There are genetics programs out there under way right now that make the Manhattan Project look like a bunch of babies playing with Lego blocks. [David Sandstrom, ReGenesis Season 3, Episode 3]

This is probably one of the best lines in the show, a thought that sums up pretty well the state of affairs in today’s science and hands down my favourite quote about genetics. I’ve finished a marathon of the first 3 seasons of ReGenesis a few weeks ago and just had to share its awesomeness with you. As a friend from work said as we were discussing the subject, “it’s nice to see a show where we’re the heroes”.

In a nutshell, this Canadian show is set in Toronto, and centers around NorBAC (North American Biotechnology Advisory Committee), an organization formed to investigate all research in biotechnology, including bioweaponry and bioterrorism. Episode after episode we see virologists, medical doctors, bioinformaticians and molecular biologists at work trying to solve problems related to superviruses, pandemics, or bacterial outbreaks all while leading their own complicated personal lives. Basically the show borrows elements from House MD, 24, CSI and ER, gives it a twist for intelligent people and voila! a thought-provoking, exciting new kind of drama.

As a scientist, there are a few things I particularly like about the way the show is put together. The bio issues they deal with are potential problems we could be exposed to, they’re not far-fetched. The science carried out in Sandstrom’s lab is as accurate as it will ever get on TV. You actually hear more than “his DNA matches the one on the vic’s extra coat button”, there’s talk of PCR, RT-PCR, microarrays, ELISAs (!), SNPs and even siRNA (gasp!). It happened a few times that D&I were watching and I actually pressed pause to state my excitement about the fact that “I did microarrays!” or “PKC? I use PKC too!”; geekery taken to extreme is how you would describe the situation. But I digress.

I also like that instead of using a ‘threat of the week’ approach, the show has some continuity, where each episode adds new problems and threats, but it also keeps revisiting earlier topics, adding some extra realism. There is also more to the plot than the actual dramatic line of events. Almost all episodes address an ethical problem we’re faced with today – human cloning, the genetic basis of sexual preference, the easy access to science which makes it straightforward to be used as a weapon, genetically-modified organisms, etc which adds more depth to the characters as they explain where they stand on such and such matter and gives you, the viewer, some food for thought.

I guess in all shows even remotely science-related, explaining the science behind the investigations is a pain in the tushie.  What goes on in CSI is bordering the ridiculous. In the real world if you had to explain how mass spectrometry works to a guy whose job revolved around that, you’d probably be punched in the nose for well, stating the obvious and being a moron. ReGenesis deals with this more elegantly and even to a scientist, it’s not as bothersome. There is a bit of over-reaction for the sake of filling in the viewer – no scientist today would deem necessary to explain to his peers “transposon – a jumping gene”.

Since I’ve switched sides and I’m playing for the bad guys now, another critique would be that all experiments are carried out so smoothly, without glitches, bumps, or troubleshooting. In reality, no genome is sequenced in its entirety in a day no matter how fast you are at PCR, microarrays are not done in a matter of hours and most of the times it takes years to find the solutions to problems these guys are dealing with. More often than not, experiments don’t work on the first try.

That being said, the show is awesome, the best science-related TV series I’ve seen so far. You’ll either love it or hate it, but if you like House and are reading this blog, my bet is you’ll love it.

And just to prove that Canadians take their stuff seriously, there’s a page on the Ontario Genomics Institute website dedicated to the show, explaining the science in lay terms and providing you with even more food for thought.

Comments (3)

  • Remember when I used to bug you with questions after watching the show about such and such genes and what characteristics they determine? And you would say to me: “Yes, darling, because I have them memorised and can state all trillion of them with perfect accuracy.” Fun times 🙂

    Also, I miss you 🙁
    *sad bunny face*

    Reply
  • I hate watching ‘math’ shows, like, Numb3rs because I can never enjoy them the way a layman might. The mathematics that seems injected into shows like that are more as a ‘look! fancy equestions!’, rather than the sort of thing that appears in Scientific American or an expository science journal.

    Which is fine. No-one wants to watch a tv show about real mathematicians. Trust me.

    There are only a few movies about maths that have worked. primarily because they recognise that the mathematics should not be represented as a hook to attract dumb people to saying, “Gee that looks smart.” A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting both come to mind, and both movies were never really about mathematics. However, the real winner, in my opinion, was Gynneth Paltrow’s “Proof”.

    Reply
  • I have never heard of this show. I would love it. I watch House every week. Thanks for letting us know about this. I wonder if I can watch it on line.

    Reply

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