Alias: Genomics Goes Prime Time

A popular television show has drawn on genomics for story lines this season. “Alias” features Sydney Bristow, a modern day superwoman and double-agent who works for the CIA and, until recently, a fictional agency known as SD-6. With the series venturing into the realm of genomics, we asked: Are the lastest twists and turns the stuff of fiction or reality?

The idea of using gene therapy to create human doubles, which aired earlier this season, seems far-fetched to most scientists. But a recent episode that involved mining a genome data base—presumably to design a pathogen to target a specific enemy based on his genome sequence—may be within the bounds of possibility.

In Episode 18, “Truth Takes Time,” the CIA speculates that bad-guy Arvin Sloane and former head of SD-6 is hatching a plan to bring an enemy out of hiding. Knowing the enemy’s general whereabouts, Sloane will spread an airborne virus that will be benign to everyone except his enemy, they suspect.

To do this, of course, Sloane needs to know his enemy’s genome sequence, which is stored in a database. Sydney’s task is to intercept the data that her mother, working for Sloane, is trying to steal. Fortunately, Sydney succeeds in her mission and the world is saved, at least until the next episode.

“This idea is not far-fetched at all,” says Malak Kotb of the University of Tennessee in Memphis. “In fact, it’s a very scary thought.”

Kotb studies Streptococcus pyogenes, a bacterium that can cause sore throat in some people, but fatal toxic shock and flesh-eating disease in others. Kotb has found that a person’s genetic make-up, in particular a group of genes known as the HLA genes, can either predispose or protect a person from the devastating effects of S. pyogenes.

“Host genes play a major role in determining susceptibility to infections,” says Kotb. “This makes it possible to modify certain pathogens to be infectious to specific people.”

Other genomic-based plots stretch the imagination to its limits. In episode 14, “Double Agent,” Sloane exploits a technique dubbed “Project Helix,” described as a “breakthrough in next-generation molecular gene therapy.”

The CIA learns that Sloane has discovered a technique to alter a person’s genetic code to reshape their physical attributes. Bad guys could be made to look like anyone else. In effect, a person’s physical double could be created in the body of someone else. Thankfully, Project Helix won’t work on just anyone.

“It only works on people of a certain genetic disposition, and the recipient must be induced into a comatose state for several days while their cells regenerate,” explained CIA agent Jack Bristow, Sydney’s TV dad, himself a double agent, during a recent episode.

Unfortunately, Sydney’s roommate, Francie had just that predisposition. She was recently murdered and replaced with her double, who now spies on Sydney and reports back to Sloane.

Stay tuned to see Sydney Bristow try to hunt down Sloane as he ventures into the world of genomics. You never know what he’ll dream up next.

“Alias” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on ABC.