G-A-T-T-A-C-A

Imagine a dystopian society where people are discriminated against not because of their color, race, creed, religion or sex, but because of their genomic predisposition to disease...

"My father was right. It didn’t matter how much I lied on my resume, my real CV was in my cells. Why should anybody invest all that money to train me, when there are a thousand other applicants with a far cleaner profile? Of course, it’s illegal to discriminate – ‘genoism’ it’s called - but no one takes the laws seriously. lf you refuse to disclose... they can always take a sample from a door handle or a handshake... Even the saliva on your application form."

Vincent (Gattaca, A Screen Play by Andrew M. Niccol).

At university – longer ago than I like to admit (1997) – I remember watching Gattaca at the cinema. I was both spellbound and slightly disturbed by a future world where discrimination was “down to a science”. 

I watched Gattaca again last night. How different my perception was the second time round – especially having been the editor of The Analytical Scientist for the past three years. The film has not aged well in terms of some technology – the cathode-ray-tube monitors in the high-tech facility make sure of that; it comes across more as ‘film noir’ than science fiction (no doubt partially intentional). But without giving away the plot (please watch it – even if you already did 20 years ago), I was fascinated most by the portrayal of DNA sequencing. Bear in mind that the film was released before the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 (1) and only seven years after it started. And yet in Gattaca, citizens take samples to discreet sequencing-while-you-wait holes in the wall to get full genomic profiles. In the workplace, sophisticated ‘black-box’ instruments with a single button – “analyze” – leave the analysts with little to do in routine urine and blood tests. Indeed, people’s lives appear to revolve around routine DNA analysis; high-security buildings require a finger prick test on entry to confirm each and every person’s identity, seemingly through DNA biomarkers.

The film begins with the title, “In the not-too-distant future” – and we’re getting close... Next-generation sequencing has breached the $1000 human genome barrier (2) – when used at scale. (I recall it cost around $80 in Gattaca). And back in 2008, President Bush signed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (3).

In April 2015, Nature announced that Chinese scientists had genetically modified human embryos (4) and in February 2016, UK researchers were given the green light to do the same (5).

Welcome to Gattaca.

Rich Whitworth

Editor

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  1. www.genome.gov/10001772
  2. www.illumina.com/content/illumina-marketing/amr/en_US/systems/hiseq-x-sequencing-system/system.html
  3. www.genome.gov/24519851
  4. www.nature.com/news/chinese-scientists-genetically-modify-human-embryos-1.17378
  5. www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35459054