Jul 9, 2021

The science of The Tomorrow War — The good, the bad, and the funny

When Hollywood tries its hand at biofacturing, sometimes science truth is better than science fiction

Chris Pratt character tries biofacturing in The Tomorrow War

As a biology teacher, Chris Pratt’s character tries his hand at biofacturing in The Tomorrow War. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

If you love science fiction movies like us, you might have spent two and a half hours of your Fourth of July weekend watching the new Amazon Prime movie, The Tomorrow War. This so-bad-it’s-good movie stars Chris Pratt as a former Green Beret turned high school biology teacher drafted to fight in a future war against aliens who are intent on ending (or should we say eating?) humankind. 

There are several spoilers below. These might not ruin your sheer enjoyment of the film, but some of you may want to continue reading after you’ve seen it for yourself. Also, we are not going to talk about wormholes, futuristic weapons, or the nuances of different kinds of volcanic ash (all really interesting topics!). Rather, we will focus on something we know a little bit about: the biotechnology underlying the plot.

How it happens in the movies

In a last-ditch effort to defeat the dreaded Whitespikes, Pratt and company capture one of the rare female Whitespikes, which are impervious to a toxin that can potentially destroy the alien invaders. Their goal is to design an enzyme inhibitor to neutralize the females’ ability to overcome the toxin. 

To find a way to stop the enzyme which is clearing the toxin in the female, a single scientist (in a self-described “one-person kind of job”) uses a montage of centrifuges, graduated cylinders, glass plates, and DNA graphics to generate “hundreds of variants, to make thousands of tests.” Although we counted only six 96-well testing plates, the science must have worked, because by the next morning they had indeed created the hoped-for enzyme inhibitor that achieved “100% bond.”

Zymergen machine learning systems

The computerized digital dashboards portrayed in The Tomorrow War are really not so far-fetched, although the gamification aspect is a bit over the top (and their graphics budget is way bigger than ours). Above, a Zymergen scientist uses just such a dashboard in real-life to see desired traits, suggested edits, and predicted performance of a molecule based on machine learning algorithms.

With the world-saving, green-glowing enzyme inhibitor in hand, Pratt’s character hops back into the Jumplink (the time travel machine humans have patched together) and travels back to the present day, where humanity can produce the enzyme inhibitor in mass quantities. 

How it happens in real life

The end goal of the science in The Tomorrow War is actually quite realistic: We can run thousands of experiments in a high-throughput, small-scale setting to produce a substance that inhibits an enzyme, and then scale production of that substance. This is something we work on every day at Zymergen. Unlike the movie, though, we use this capability for discovery across advanced materials, agriculture, personal care products, and more — not for killing invading aliens.

The “how” of the science is where The Tomorrow War drifts into science fiction. At Zymergen, the kind of real biofacturing we do involves multi-disciplinary teams spanning biology, automation, data science, fermentation, and manufacturing collaborating together to successfully execute a workflow like this. While not quite as good at delivering witty dialogue, a liquid-handling robot is much more precise than a lone scientist working with a pipette. 

And as nice as it would be to put full trust in a computer that says it has achieved “100% bond” and call it a day, in reality we gather as much data as possible on each molecule produced in the lab. This is so that our biologists and data scientists can learn and make smarter changes in each successive round of experiments — an important part of the design-built-test-analyze-learn (DBTAL) cycle that is so crucial to designing real-world solutions.

Science fact is even better than science fiction, and you simply have to see it to believe it. Zymergen’s Reconfigurable Automation Carts (RACs) represent the state-of-the-art in rapidly scaling solutions in areas like electronics, personal care, agriculture, and health. Here’s how our robots operate in everyday life.

On saving the world

When his biology students express little hope for humanity in the face of the alien invaders, Chris Pratt’s character delivers this motivational gem:

If there’s one thing that the world needs right now, it’s scientists. We can’t stop innovating. That’s how you solve a problem. Science is important. So we need to focus up.

We couldn’t agree more! It took about two years and $200 million USD to bring The Tomorrow War to life. If the science fiction behind it inspires a generation of young people to dig deeper into how biotech really works, and if some of them become the real-life scientific heroes of tomorrow, then it was well worth it.

Learn more about biofacturing, life at Zymergen, and how we make tomorrow (short video).

Very special thanks to Josh Robinson and Ana-Belen Ibanez-Zamora for inspiring this post and providing much of the technical content.