“My real résumé was in my cells,” Vincent Anton Freeman (Ethan Hawke) says in a voice-over toward the beginning of the 1997 classic sci-fi noir film, Gattaca. He’s referring to the fact that in his “not-too-distant future” society, which is driven by eugenics, the measure of a person starts and ends with DNA. Indeed, from the time their embryos are in a petri dish, those destined to become “valid” are altered through means of genetic engineering, while those birthed without genetic interference are considered subpar and left to languish as low-level workers.
Now that the movie is 20 years old, it seems like as good a time as ever to do a quick rundown of how close we are to making a Gattaca-like society, in which extensive genetic engineering and screening are the norm, a reality. Here are some of the biggest real-life breakthroughs that, two decades on, make the movie a lot less fiction-y.
SELECTING EMBRYONIC DNA WITH “P.G.D.”
The biggest focus of the film is of course the use of widespread genetic engineering, starting with in vitro insemination of eggs. Vincent’s brother, for example, is screened for all possible “prejudicial conditions” — including issues like myopia and obesity — and is pre-determined to be a male with hazel eyes, fair skin, and dark hair.
Right now, two of those three traits can already be selected for, including gender and eye color, with a procedure known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Vice did a great job covering the issue in one of the show’s season four episodes, where Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg of the Fertility Institutes discusses how he’s able to not only choose eye color and sex (with something like 80% certainty) but also weed out various genetic disorders.
The process is relatively simple: doctors fertilize multiple ova, and then test the DNA of the resulting embryos. If you want a boy with blue eyes, the doctors look through the DNA of all the embryos in order to find one that has a genome coded for a male with blue eyes. In the Vice video, Dr. Steinberg notes that he thinks it will only be five years before he’ll be able to select for other traits, including weight and height. But of course, everything is always just five years away.
ALTERING EMBRYONIC DNA WITH CRISPR-CAS9
Simply scanning a set of eggs for the right traits won’t be sufficient to realize Gattaca‘s dystopian vision though. We’ll need to be able to alter the human genome with extreme precision and total reliability. And for that, we’re probably going to end up using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, which was first utilized for modification of human embryos in 2015 by Chinese researchers. The researchers were able to remove and replace a malfunctioning gene. The experiment was then repeated with more success in July of this year in America.
These controversial successes have served as a proof-of-concept for an essentially endless range of genetic alteration that will be possible if/when (probably when) CRISPR-Cas9 modification becomes a more reliable operation. This procedure may take more time to develop than PGD, however, as it requires the perfect duplication of a bacterium’s immune response to bacteriophages — viruses that invade bacteria.
Bacteria have a defense against bacteriophages, whereby “enemy” DNA is copied into their own genome. When a bacteriophage invades a bacterium in the future, that bacterium tests the enemy DNA against its previous copy. If there’s a match found, the bacteria uses guide RNA to seek and latch on to the matching yet foreign sequence, and clips it with CAS9 enzymes.
One of the most promising advances in medicine since Gattaca was realizing that the same process can be applied to human DNA (or any organism’s DNA), which is what allowed Chinese and American researchers to clip a specific, faulty gene and replace it with a working one in embryos. (For a more in-depth explanation, this Kurzgesagt video does a great job of explaining this in more detail.)
THE “APP STORE” FOR YOUR GENOME
Gattaca also posited a world where the screening of each other’s DNA was proper practice before getting involved in business or romance. Irene, for example, plucks a (planted) rogue hair from Vincent’s comb in order to have his DNA sequenced. (Which is something you can already do if you have a few hundred bucks.)
Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA can sequence your genome, and all you need to do is pay the fees, put a lot of spit in a plastic vial, and send in a sample. The profusion of genetics-based private industry is especially remarkable considering the fact that the human genome wasn’t even sequenced until six years after Gattaca came out.
In our future, there are plans to grow an entire app market for genome sequencing, where third-party companies will charge you to analyze sections of your genome and tell you what kind of sleep patterns, food sensitivities, heart problems, and even tastes in wine you’re predisposed to having. Helix, the company seeking to build this genetic app store, sequences your DNA and keeps it on file.
MANIPULATING MORPHOLOGY IN MICE AND THE 12-FINGERED PIANIST
One of the blink-or-you’ll-miss it moments in the film comes when Vincent and Irene see a piano concert that features a player with 12 fingers, six on each hand. Irene notes that the music the pianist plays “can only be played with twelve,” implying that non-standard mutation is sometimes a desired outcome when genetically engineering people. But will we really have the ability to mutate people’s morphology like that in the future? Again, the answer is probably.
Scientists can already insert genes into mice and even pigs to make them express a protein that glows under florescent light. Researchers can even genetically modify mice in order to encourage total regeneration of lost limbs. So the idea of taking a gene that codes for polydactylism, or an excess of fingers or toes, and inserting it into an embryo’s genome, seems well within the bounds of possibility.
What do you think about how real-life genetic engineering advances line up with the themes of Gattaca? Are we headed for a society ruled by four letters, or is there really no gene for fate? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: Columbia Pictures
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