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TV Review: Biohackers

9 November 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1071

'Biohacker': a contentious term. To me, it conjures up images of the likes of Josiah Zayner, purveyor of the ODIN CRISPR-at-home kit (see BioNews 1011), a self-injecting extraordinaire currently trying to DIY a coronavirus vaccine. 

If you are at all like me, you might share a morbid fascination for these biological rogues pursuing pure science stripped free of any consideration for ethics boards or grant committees. At least I was, until a fellow scientist told me how he'd attended a meeting of a biohacking club and was swamped by members eager to learn from him when they heard that he had actually genetically modified something (in a safe setting, with the correct permissions). None of them had previously even come close. My fascination was a little dampened after that. Biohacking was all hot air, it seemed. 

But when Netflix released a new six-part series titled 'Biohackers', my interest was once again piqued. I quietly hoped for quasi-real documentary akin to Tiger King, but with under-skin implants and pipetting. Yet on reading the blurb I realised that this was not a documentary but a 'techno-thriller'; pure fiction. Written, directed and filmed in Germany by Christian Ditter and Tim Trachte. 

This raised some of my old scepticism. Turning molecular biology, definitely not a spectator sport, into thrilling TV is usually achieved by means of extreme inaccuracy and desperate heavy-handedness. I had flashbacks to the awful 'forensic analysis' in CSI and was prepared for the worst. 

Were my worries justified? I turned on Netflix to find out.

The series follows Mia Akerlund, a new medical student in the German university town of Freiburg. Mia has a grudge against a certain Professor Tanja Lorenz, esteemed genomics and reproductive medicine scientist and head of her own institute.

Mia moves into a flat of keen student biohackers, with petri dishes in their home fridge and DIY genome-edited mushrooms in their pasta. The details are amusing, and the actions of a supporting character, Ole, who is obsessed with biohacking, add a deeply enjoyable and fairly believable element of comic respite to the series. Interactions between him and Mia capture a contrast between the futility and narcissism of most biohacking in comparison to institutionalised science.

But as the series progresses, it becomes clear that the focus is in fact, not on biohackers at all. Instead, the academic scientists are the source of intrigue. We are shown a web of personal grudges, espionage, rogue academics with no morals – and seemingly near-infinite resources – conducting ethically irresponsible experiments with no oversight. I was somewhat surprised that the series centred around a known problem in academia: bullying and egotistical behaviour from those in positions of power. Professor Lorenz is effectively a cult of the personality group leader, controlling and manipulating people by the virtue of her reputation, resources and knowledge. The extent of Professor Lorenz's power reaches the edges of believability, but it makes for good TV; especially if you're already aware of the problem.

Airy student flats and sunny lake scenes are replaced with dark underground laboratories and high tech academic offices. Biohacking itself serves as comedic relief to an otherwise fairly intense series.

The writers play fast and somewhat loose with the science, but not in a way that deeply offends me as a molecular biologist. There is a fairly harmonious balance of convincing basics and wild fiction which never becomes too grating. This is in part testimony to the quality of production: I never thought I'd see pipettes used convincingly, or a DNA agarose gel run and imaged, or a genomics browser taking stage on a Netflix binge series. Things have to be sped up and fictionalised to turn science into thrilling TV, and the writers have done a good job without too much getting lost.

Some aspects are however less convincing if you watch closely. Things which would take hours or days of swearing, failure and frustration in real life, take minutes in the series. Genomes are used to predict facial structure, although one character does caveat this. The plot and the science do become steadily more unrealistic as the series progresses, culminating in a beguiling and somewhat unsatisfying finale.

Issues aside, I definitely enjoyed Biohackers, despite my initial concerns. It has flaws, but it's a romp, and enjoyable.  If you view it as a piece of close-to-reality science fiction, it is absorbing. Think of it as a Michael Crichton novel; writers with enough of a grasp of the science to allow your convictions not to get in the way. Techno-thriller is an apt classification it seems, and I hope the genre grows.

I do however have a broader criticism. There is an 'evil of science' narrative underpinning the series, largely stemming from the actions of Professor Lorenz. Does the good versus evil damage the reputation of all the genuine genetics, fertility and ethics researchers at a time where human germline genome editing is finally starting to be considered as ethical and viable? Rogue scientists do exist, after all – look at He Jiankui – but they are usually found out, and never achieve the heights of ethical debauchery achieved here {see BioNews 1029). The system has checks and balances. It's a delicate trade-off between creating an entertaining narrative and presenting a realistic image of modern-day molecular biology.

So if you want to lose yourself in some well written, well-paced, and not totally awful science fiction, I would recommend giving this a watch. Be warned: it probably isn't going to astound you or replace The Wire or The Sopranos on your TV series favourites list, but it will provide a few nights of perfectly watchable entertainment. Don't expect too much biohacking, and whatever you do, make sure you watch with subtitles, because the dub is truly awful.

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