We talk with the DMNS Curator of Health Sciences about Gattaca
Tomorrow evening brings the final entry in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's Sci-Fi Film Series at the Phipps Theater, with Gattaca closing the sequence out with a biological bang. As we have been doing lately, we caught up with the DMNS' Curator and Department Chair of Health Sciences Dr. Nicole Garneau to help explain the science behind the film. If you're dying for more knowledge, we've already had chats with the DMNS science staff about Moon, 2001 and Alien. Today, we learn all about genotyping, genetics, DNA and the ethics behind it.
Westword: How possible could genotyping actually be?
Dr. Nicole Garneau: Very. In fact, genotyping and genome sequencing are both already a reality. The Human Genome Project began in 1990 and was completed two years earlier than scheduled, in 2003, due to advances in DNA technologies. Right now you can go online and have your full genome sequenced for about $5,000. But considering that humans are 99.9% genetically identical, some argue there's no reason to sequence all -- 3 billion base pairs in your DNA sequence. Instead you can have a portion of that 0.1% identified (certain genes for example) to give you information about ancestry and propensity for certain genetic related diseases. This costs about $100-$500 and takes about 8 weeks. The two questions at hand in terms of Gattaca is whether it is possible to instantly identify someone from a drop of blood, and using their DNA to "predict" success. The technology to quickly use genetics to identify someone is not there, but definitely possible.
Would it actually be possible to fool computers into thinking you're someone else by using their DNA as Ethan Hawke does in the film?
Absolutely. Your DNA is kind of like a cookbook. It has all the recipes (genes) in it to make all the things (proteins) your body needs. The order of the letters (nucleotides) makes words (codons), and that order is vital to making proteins correctly. So if there was a way to have a computer instantly perform genetic analysis based on a drop of blood, then yes, the computer could very likely perform a "cookbook" search to see if your recipes sync up to who you claim to be.
The thing is, it's not just our genetics that make us. The genetics is the cookbook for sure, but this is only the groundwork. Who we are depends on "gene expression," which is what proteins we actually make from the genes we have (the complete span of all the proteins our body makes is our proteome). Gene expression depends on the gene itself, but also any changes that happen when that gene gets copied and read (errors and editing), or even if it gets copied and read at all (which is called epigenetics). Additionally, there is a new field of study that focuses not only on our genome, but the genomes of the millions of bacteria that live in and on us, called our microbiome. It's becoming ever more evident that the microbiome plays a huge role in disease and therefore wellness.
How much proof is there that one's genetics can influence their success?
This is tricky business, because I would be lying if I said genetics has nothing to do with what you do and how well you do it in your life, but I would also be lying if I told you I believed genetics is the end all. The field of behavioral genetics studies this -- how your genetics and your environment are all part of the complicated mix of who you are. Additionally, humans are not immune to judgment and stereotype; so while genetics may not be the end all, we unfortunately live in a world where others may judge us and have influence on our lives based on what we look like (which is largely based on genetics). Is there a silver lining to this? I think so. Adversity breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside the box. Gattaca is a utopia of genetically modified humans who do not have to worry about various illnesses or physical attributes that are undesirable -- you can make the case that adversity has been systematically removed to an extent -- therefore creativity and personality might have gone with it.
Gattaca has reached a point where it's often taught in conjunction with biology classes. Do you think the film accurately portrays its ideas in a way that can help students?
In order to make science relevant to kids we have to deliver in ways they relate to, often in ways that are completely different from the ways in which we were taught, and in this case it means technology and plot lines. I'm all for using both these things as a "happy meal" to get kids intrigued, interested and above all to get them to recognize science is in them, and has huge implications in their lives. But for this technique to be successful, it has to be complemented with up-to-date information. The movie alone will not allow a viewer to know the difference between DNA, RNA, proteins, genes, sequencing, genotypes, haplotypes and traits. More so, it needs to be done so the students remain interested after the lesson is over. I have huge admiration for teachers that pull this off lesson after lesson.
Do you think the ethical concerns would outweigh the benefits of this was ever a reality?
There are huge benefits to understanding our own genetics, including understanding the genes and mutations involved in disease, customized and personal medicine based on genetics (pharmacogenetics) and genealogical research. But it's not just genetics -- it's really what our bodies do with the recipes that make this information so important. We haven't really reached a point yet where that type of analysis is done in a way that is efficient and cost effective.
I think in order to answer this question as a society it's important there is always an open discourse between those to the right and left of the issue, so neither extreme mandates what we do with technology. What is most dangerous is not having honest dialogue, because that's when genuine concerns are not considered. Equally worrisome is when necessary scientific developments are halted by those who don't fully understand the technology. There was a quote from Dr. Chad Nusbaum of the Broad Institute in 2007 that I think hits the question on the mark: "Science is moving way ahead of the ethics. We can't stop the technological advancements but the gap keeps widening. It is our responsibility to understand the implications of our work and educate the public and elected officials so that a proper dialog can take place."
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