Science Behind “Planet of the Apes” Virus

In the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes we finally get a clue as to how the Statue of Liberty got toppled and apes came to be able to speak and wear vests. SPOILER ALERT! A new gene therapy aimed at fighting the effects of Alzheimer’s disease goes out of control while being tested on apes. Multiple bloody sneezes later we are left to infer that the virus used in the therapy will decimate humanity and that apes, made more intelligent by it, are ready to fill our ecological niche.

Could that really happen? Really really? To find out, we spoke with Luis P. Villarreal, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the School of Biological Sciences at University of California, Irvine, and director for the Center for Virus Research, about gene therapy, how viruses can be helpful, and why we probably won’t be battling hyper-intelligent apes anytime soon.

First off, what is gene therapy?

Gene therapy is treating disease by providing the genetic instruction for a new gene-a gene that is either missing or not expressed. Initially it was all done with virus and then various methods that use DNA directly have been adapted.

How common is it?

It‘s one of these things that has been a promising technology for 20 years. It has only occasionally proved worthwhile. On those occasions it has been for children that have autoimmune disease or immune disease in which there is a missing function that is replaced by the addition of just a couple of genes—one or two genes. There are a few people alive today because of that.

So what about making apes smarter?

[Gene therapy] has been used in the context of the brain to transiently (over the short term) express genes in the brain and sometimes in neurons. So that’s where the grain of truth lies. But to take it to the point that they are talking about [in the movie] is like maybe you’ve shot a rocket up about 100 feet and now you think you can go to the moon or to mars.

Why are viruses used for gene therapy?

Well this is what [viruses] do for a living, right? They get into cells and reprogram them. They typically reprogram them to make more virus but sometime they reprogram them just to hang onto the virus. They are natural programmers of genetic information.

The thing is that the scenario where you just spray a virus respiratory-wise and it ends up in your brain expressing specifically –that’s pretty much science fiction at this point.

Are people receiving this treatment or is it still experimental?

This is experimental therapy that is for the most part being done on animals. Occasionally it has been done on people in an experimental way {if] without it they are destined to die. So those are the conditions under which you do that kind of human experimentation. You know they have a severe immunodeficiency, which will kill them inevitably unless something is done.

In the movie the virus that is being used escapes. Is that something we need to be worried about?

Most of the viruses we make are what we call defective. That means they are not really capable of functioning as a virus by themselves.

Another sort of problem of this movie is that the assumption is that you made a functional virus that is programming and persisting in its host. That’s conceivable but that’s not how we do it for the most part because anytime you manipulate the genetic composition of a virus you tend to mess it up and make it defective. It may function as a vehicle for gene expression–that’s different. And there are natural systems that seem to work this way.

You saw the movie Alien? You remember the biological strategy of the alien? It has this egg that it implants into the human then i [the egg] develops and bursts out. That’s based on an actual biological strategy for parasitoid wasps. They fly around, they find other insect hosts and they inject them with an ovipositor—an egg, their fertilized egg—into the host insect. And in many cases the reason this egg can survive, in this insect, is because they inject a whole pile of virus with the egg to incapacitate the immune system of the host and also to reprogram it genetically so that it accommodates the development of the egg. So in nature this actually happens this kind of gene therapy. And the eggs of these parasitoid wasps are actually coated in a paste of almost pure virus.


[Movies like this] tap into this natural fear that people have of viruses because these are things that you can’t see, they get into you, they do bad things, they transmit. They’re nasty, mean, and inapparrent. They are great for a fear component of a movie. But it turns out that they also do things that are essential.

The real story is that we probably wouldn’t exist without these agents. They are the editors of genomes and our very own genome has been edited by them.

-Rhett Register