WelcomeTeachingPublicationsInfo for prospective studentsCitizen ScienceGeocachingLinksBioTAP

by Symon Perriman 

            Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film, GATTACA, analyzes the future of genetic engineering.  It examines the impact that this science could have on everyday life in a society where the genetically inferior (“de-gene-erates”) are discriminated against not for whom they are, but for what they are made of.  This twisted world in the “not too distant future” follows the genetically inferior Vincent Freeman as he borrows the identity of the genetically superior (yet disabled) Jerome Morrow, and attains his life long dream of going into space working for the Gattaca Corporation.  Although GATTACA focuses on a range of sociological topics from ethics to genetic discrimination (set against a scientific background) the film projects scientific advances in genetic engineering which could be achieved in the future, such that genetic screening at birth exists, ‘designer babies’ can be ordered, and DNA recognition becomes the main identification method of everyday life.  By creating comparisons between today’s technology and the future science of GATTACA, it appears that the scientific advances portrayed in the film could become a reality within several years; this allows the audience to question what social implications could result from a genetically discriminatory society.

 

Background Information about Genetic Engineering:

Genetic engineering is the main focal point in GATTACA, and today this field of bioengineering is one of the fastest growing areas in science.  Genetic engineering is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary (2000) as the “scientific alteration of the structure of genetic material in a living organism. It involves the production and use of recombinant DNA.”  The science behind genetic engineering is relatively new, as it has only been within the last decade that it has become possible to look at single DNA structures, identify them, and break apart their individual genes.  This direct alteration of heritable traits is performed by either modifying an organism’s own DNA, or by combining it with the DNA of another organism.  The advances in this technology have allowed a wide variety of animals to be cloned, such as Dolly the Sheep in 1997.  Animals have even been cloned from single cells, since only one complete strand of DNA is needed to produce the organism.  In the year 2000 the human DNA structure, the genome, had been successfully mapped (Ebersole & Westrup, 2000).  Since this point scientists have been working to discover which traits each of the tens of thousands of individual genes possess.  These traits can include physical, behavioral, and disease-controlling characteristics, including skin color, baldness, shyness, alcoholism, heart-disease, and deafness.  Many traits can be identified in organism just after they are conceived, so ideally in the future the negative ones could be eliminated before the child is born; this process is known as genetic screening.  The alteration of genetic material is done by identifying the bad gene or sequence of DNA, removing it from the DNA strand, and then replacing it with a preferable gene.  According to Doctor Stuart W G Derbyshire in The British Medical Journal, when scientists are able to test sperm and embryos for these genetic dispositions and eliminate them, they would ultimately be able to create “perfect humans” that are almost guaranteed to be disease-free with agreeable physical and behavioral characteristics (2002).

 

Genetic Screening: Testing for Disease at Birth

At the beginning of the film GATTACA, the protagonist Vincent Freedman narrates his history to the audience, and explains that his society has been affected by advances in genetic engineering.  Vincent, born without genetic manipulation, questions his parents asking why his “Mom put her faith in God rather than her local geneticist,” showing that modifying humans is common in his world.  At birth a blood sample was taken to analyze his DNA, and it revealed that he had: “neurological condition, 60 % probability; manic depression, 42 % probability; attention deficit disorder, 89 % probability; heart disorder, 99 % probability.  Early fatal potential.  Life expectancy: 30.2 years.”  From the moment he was born his future prejudicial health problems were identified.

The scene in GATTACA where a person’s future can be mapped out at birth may appear to be farfetched considering the current stages of genetics. It is, however, very possible that determining future prejudicial diseases will be viable in the near future.  In a 2003 Discover article Jeff Wheelwright discusses a “new technique that screens newborns for more than 30 genetic illnesses pinpoints problems before they develop” (2003).  Such hereditary diseases that are tested for include “myopia, mental retardation, SCID, Tay-Sachs, and haemochromatosis.”  More recent studies show that genetic screening for Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis is becoming more common and parents are being actively encouraged to have their newborn tested, especially in Australia and the United States (Collins & Williamson, 2003).  So although the current science is not nearly as precise as shown in the film, certain diseases can already be detected at birth, and as science progresses even more conditions will be identifiable if this practice continues.

 

Ordering a Child: ‘Designer Babies’ – The Very Best of You

One of the most interesting scenes in the film is when Vincent’s parents visit their local geneticist and ‘order’ a brother for him.  The doctor says that his parents have specified a boy with “hazel eyes, dark hair, and fair skin.”  The geneticist mentions that he has gone ahead and “taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions, such as premature baldness and myopia, alcoholism and addictive susceptibility, propensity for violence, obesity, etcetera,” since it is best not to leave anything up to chance, thereby giving “[their] child the best possible start.”  The geneticist reminds Vincent’s parents that “the child is still you … simply the best of you.” 

The science behind ‘ordering’ a child today is very far from how it is portrayed in the film.  Currently parents are able to select the gender of their child at the embryo stage with fairly high accuracy.  However, as the technology advances it should be possible for parents to select an increasing number of physical characteristics as shown in the film, such as eye color, hair color, and skin tone.  As the science behind identifying DNA advances, less important genetic characteristics (such as prejudicial physical and behavioral traits) may also be predetermined or eliminated - for example shyness, alcoholism, or obesity.  In 1995, genetic engineer Ward F Odenwald claimed that he manipulated the genes of male fruit flies to make them “bisexual” and “homosexual.”  It should, however, be noted that genetic manipulation has more valuable purposes than designing ‘perfect’ humans.  In The British Medical Journal Doctor Stuart W G Derbyshire discusses how he helped a family select an embryo and have a child without the gene fault that causes Fanconi's anaemia; a disease that the baby’s older sister has.  The infant was able to save his sister’s life by giving a successful bone marrow transplant, since “the odds of success increased dramatically when the donor was a sibling” (2002).  It is only because of advances in genetic engineering that the young girl’s life was saved. 

 

Genetic Identification: The Fingerprint of the Future

Throughout GATTACA the characters are constantly tested for their genetic makeup to make sure they are whom they claim.  As employees enter Gattaca each day their thumbs are pricked for a blood sample to ensure that their DNA has not mutated, and to check they are still as healthy as when they were hired.  As a side-plot to the film, Vincent’s true identity is eventually discovered by the police because his eyelash is found at a crime scene in Gattaca.  The investigators believed that the “de-gene-erate” committed the crime since no one else in the company “has a violent bone in their body.”  As the police searched for Vincent they took genetic evidence from a variety of sources, including samples of hair, saliva, blood, and even skin off of the face of an investigator who was punched by the protagonist.

The ability to collect and test DNA as accurately and quickly as shown in the film is far more advanced than the technology available today.  Currently scientists are unable to identify DNA in a couple of seconds; this process can take “1 week to months” (Lawler, 2001).  Even when this is complete it is only possible to tell a limited amount about the person.  According to New Scientist forensic investigators are now able to ‘interrogate’ DNA for its owner’s “ethnic appearance, hair color and eye color, and research groups around the world are making progress on other physical traits, including jaw shape” (Wilson, 2002).  This shows that progress is being made toward a similar scenario to that of GATTACA, even though today’s technology is still a long way off.  Additionally, it is unlikely that in the near future DNA identification technology will be able to say who the person actually is, and not just give a projected physical description.  This technology would take many years to develop, as the genetic sequence of every human would first have to be mapped then recorded in an enormous database.  However smaller-scale projects to map the DNA of select groups of people with similar genetic information have already taken place.  In the October 1997 issue of Science, Eliot Marshall discusses a project he is performing in Iceland to sequence the DNA of a majority of the country.  Similar projects are already taking place in Estonia and other small European countries whose inhabitants have somewhat limited genetic diversity, but to map the genetic sequence of a large and diverse group of people, such as in the United States, would take several years. 

 

Social Consequences in the Future: Living in a ‘Perfect’ Society

The social consequences of a culture filled with ‘perfect’ humans are cleverly examined in GATTACA.  In a society where genetic manipulation is encouraged there are three major societal problems: genetic discrimination, expectations of prophetic genetics, and a loss of human diversity.  At the current rate at which genetic engineering is advancing it could be possible that humanity changes more in a couple of decades than it did in the last millennium.  It is likely that the technology would first be used for positive advances in society, such as the elimination of hereditary disease or for special cases like selecting an embryo without a certain disease.  However, this science could move to the lucrative field of cosmetic genetics, where ‘designer babies’ could be created with ideal physical characteristics.  This could also lead to a social separation of classes of those who can afford to ‘build’ their children, as opposed to having them naturally.  Eventually people may have no faith in their own ability with the belief that their fate predetermines genetics; this is demonstrated by several characters in GATTACA.  It is only Vincent who believes he can do more than his predestined DNA when he says “there is no gene for fate.”  Perhaps the largest problem for a genetically-run society could be the discrimination that might result from it.  Those that are genetically superior may be given the best jobs, the highest salaries, and the greatest chance to succeed in life.  Although there is no evidence that this will happen, it is a possible scenario that should be considered. 

 

Conclusion: A Critique of Genetic Engineering in GATTACA

Overall this film does an excellent job of communicating the social and scientific impacts that genetic engineering could have in the future.  The future science in GATTACA is communicated in a realistic manner based on today’s technology.  In several years, once the human genome has been examined in more detail, our society could have the ability to build ‘designer babies.’  It should also be possible to project a human’s future detrimental physical characteristics and diseases by simply examining their DNA at birth.  But again, this should come with time as research on human DNA continues.  The identification technology of DNA will also be highly probable in the near future.  The main setbacks for this is the slow speed at which it takes to analyze DNA, and the time it would take to create an advanced database of the DNA of every human in the society.  While it is unknown if the world’s future social structure will exist in the way reflected in GATTACA, it is certain that within the next couple of decades the technology and science behind genetic engineering will be advanced perhaps to the point where GATTACA could become a reality.  This film shows an interesting glimpse of what the future could be, and allows the audience to question if this is what they want their world to be like.

 

Works Cited

 

Collins, V., Williamson, R. 2003. “Providing services for families with a genetic condition: A contrast between cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome.” Pediatrics. 112(5):1177.

 

Derbyshire, S. 2002. “Debating Matters. Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line?” British Medical Journal. 325:974.

 

Ebersole, R., Westrup, H. 2000. “Cracking the Code.” Current Science. 86:4.

 

GATTACA, screenplay by Andrew Niccol. Released October 1997. Directed by Andrew

      Niccol. Produced by Danny DeVito. Screenplay written by Andrew Niccol.

 

Lawler, A. 2003. “Massive DNA identification effort gets under way.” Science. 294(5541):278-279.

 

Marshall, E. 1997. “Tapping Iceland’s DNA.” Science. 278:566.

 

Travis, J. 1995. “Bisexual bugs: Added DNA changes Fruit Fly Behavior, Stirs up  Controversy.” Science News. 148:13-15.

 

Wheelwright, J. 2003. “Testing your Future.” Discover. 24:34-35.

 

Wilson, C. 2002. “Ready for your Close-up?” New Scientist. 175:34.

 

Enter content here

Enter content here

Enter content here

Enter supporting content here