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25 Years After ‘Gattaca’ Released, What Do Genetic Scientists Think About It?

25 Years After ‘Gattaca’ Released, What Do Genetic Scientists Think About It?

Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman in a still from ‘Gattaca’. Photo courtesy: Sony Picture

  • Gattaca deals with the potential ethical quandaries with genoism and eugenics. It became shorthand for a dystopian future enabled by genetic engineering.
  • In particular, the movie is invoked whenever people talk about technologies like the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas-9 or procedures such as pre-implantation genetic testing.
  • Cliche and misconceptions aside, all the experts see Gattaca as a decent representation of concerns people had about reproductive genetics and eugenics.

Like many others, the first time I watched Gattaca was in school. It was seventh grade, and we were in the middle of our genetics unit. The film, which was released in 1997 and marked the beginning of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s ill-fated relationship, is set in a world in which genetic selection ensures children have the best traits – and life – possible. It follows Vincent Freeman (played by Hawke), an “in-valid” who was conceived naturally and at high risk for developing a heart defect. Unable to get hired for anything beyond menial cleaning jobs, he decides to disguise himself as a “Valid,” using DNA samples from a former swimming star in order to secure a job at Gattaca Aerospace Corp. My teacher hoped to use the film to show us the potential ethical quandaries with genoism –discrimination based on genetics – and eugenics (and maybe give herself a bit of a break for a few classes).

This October marks the 25th anniversary of the film’s release. Ever since, the word Gattaca – made up of the letters that stand for the four nitrogenous bases that make up our genes – has essentially become shorthand for a dystopian future enabled by genetic engineering. “We talk about Brave New World, we talk about 1984, we talk about Frankenstein, we talk about Gattaca,” Josephine Johnston, an expert on the ethical, legal, and policy implications of biomedical technologies at the Hastings Center, said. “It’s one of those kinds of cultural representation of a certain seat of concerns.”

The film was released about a year after the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, was cloned, so it was really tapping into popular conversation about ethics and genetic technology. “At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish [a reference to genetically modified foods], the science in Gattaca is theoretically possible,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in a review right after the film came out.

And ever since, people have been invoking the name as a warning: Gattaca stands for a future in which genetic technology has created a society where scientists determine your genes, and your genes determine who you are. “The only protection society has from a slippery slope that basically leads to a Gattaca-type environment—designer babies, a master race—is public awareness, public scrutiny,” says a doctor during a CNN broadcast in 2000 about designer babies – that is, babies genetically designed to have certain traits.

In 2008, Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prevents employers and health insurance companies from using genetic information against individuals. Although GINA was first proposed a few years prior to Gattaca’s release, the film was used to talk about it. “No Gattaca Here: Genetic Anti-Discrimination Law Goes Into Effect” reads the headline of a 2009 Discover magazine article on the law.

In particular, Gattaca seems to be invoked whenever people talk about technologies like the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas-9 or procedures such as pre-implantation genetic testing, which allows doctors to scan embryos for certain traits just like they did in Gattaca. (Using CRISPR-Cas-9 to edit human germline cells such as embryos is banned in the United States, but PGT is used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization in fertility clinics.)

In 2013, a Scientific American article really drew out the comparison when discussing the advancement – and ethical implications – of using pre-implantation genetic testing, asking “Are We Too Close to Making Gattaca a Reality?

And after a scientist used CRISPR to create the first genetically edited babies in 2018, Ed Yong wrote in the Atlantic, “Even without any speculation about designer babies and Gattaca-like futures that may or may not come to pass, the details about what has already transpired are galling enough.” (The scientist was widely criticised and sentenced to three years in prison.)

Those are just a few of the countless examples of articles about the ethics of genetic editing invoking Gattaca. In fact, the editor of Future Tense says she is constantly taking references to the film out of pieces because they get “a little tired.”

Given the seemingly strong connection between the film and modern genetic technologies, I was curious – do people who work with these tools and concepts on a daily basis get tired of Gattaca, too? I decided to reach out and see how often the film comes up in their day-to-day and whether they think it’s been a net good to society or just a way to create a moral panic.

Deanna Darnes is a genetic counsellor in Dallas, where she talks to patients about birth defects, chromosome abnormalities, and single gene disorders and helps them find genetic testing options. She’s found that the movie left some patients – if they “are more my age or older,” she says – confused about how genetics work, and what technology can do for fetuses with genetic diseases. Darnes especially noted that some people walked away from the movie with an oversimplified view of genetics as one gene codes for one trait.

“We’re glad patients know what genetics actually are, but it anchors them to think certain things are permanent when they’re not,” she said. “People don’t understand that genes are a big circuit. They work in concert, it’s not a light switch. We need to move away from the pea plants and doing the rudimentary Punnett squares of ‘it’s either this or that’ because it’s not. It’s a spectrum.”

future tense

Experts in other areas of genetics also noted that because the film is coming on 25 years old, Gattaca jokes fall flat.

“I think I think about it more than my patients do because when they ask what we’re testing for in the embryos, I on occasion say ‘It’s not like Gattaca, we can’t test for traits. When we screen embryos broadly, we’re screening for chromosomes’,” Paula Brady, a reproductive endocrinologist at Columbia University, said. “I think the movie’s old enough that it’s not a frame of reference.”

Brady also pointed out how the movie exists on the premise that genetics are fate and fails to account for the idea that the manifestation of certain genes can vary significantly from person to person.

“It assumes predisposition is inevitability, and we know that’s not true,” she explained. And some of her patients, who rely on donor eggs and/or sperm struggle with not having control over the reproduction process. She tells them that “the way genomes come together and make embryos and individuals is a ‘slot machine.’ It’s not something we have such control over.”

Brady also noted how the film fails to address other factors that can influence a child’s development. “Watching the movie now, it was sad to me the degree to which it peripheralised parents and nurture, which we know is not true.”

CRISPR-Cas9 as a Molecular Tool Introduces Targeted Double Strand DNA Breaks. Photo: Guido4/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 4.0

But geneticist Jonathan Pettitt seems to think the film does hint at the idea that genetics are not the end-all be-all.

“In Gattaca, the seductive certainty offered by genetic determinism ends up being cleverly undermined when Vincent (Ethan Hawke), one of the few people born outside the pre-selection process, proves more than a match for his genetically perfect peers,” he writes in a 2016 article in the Conversation. “The film’s ultimate message is that DNA is not destiny – which is precisely what science is now increasingly backing up. This being the case, allowing ourselves to be misled by science fiction is both an unfortunate and strange state of affairs.”

Some people who work directly with Gattaca-like technology don’t hear about the film as often as one might think. Megan Hochstrasser, who is currently a lead editor at Arcadia Science, got her PhD working on natural CRISPR systems at University of California, Berkeley. Hochstrasser was part of the lab when CRISPR-Cas-9 really took off as a genetic engineering tool. It wasn’t until the gene editing component emerged that it became salient as to how her work was related to Gattaca.

“Because my work was so basic and it wasn’t like I was doing gene editing in the early days, I didn’t really think about Gattaca as something that applied to my life or my own research for a while,” she explained. “As people started bringing it up all the time, it’s become this ubiquitous reference, I started thinking about it more.” She noted that at some point a bunch of lab members got together to jog their memory (and some watched it for the first time).

“I don’t think it’s as hot of a reference for general audiences,” Hochstrasser added. “It seems like something the scientific community likes to reference a lot and definitely a lot of laypeople do know it, but I think they know it and care about it a lot less than we think they do.”

Cliche and misconceptions aside, all the experts I spoke to see it as a decent representation of concerns people had about reproductive genetics and eugenics.

“At first I was like, ‘A lot of people reference it, I shouldn’t, it’s kind of overdone,’ but then I realised it’s actually ridiculously relevant so I’m definitely going to reference it,” Johnston said. “I have often felt like films and books do a better job than academic bioethicists of bringing alive some of those other concerns and arguments about who we are as humans, who we are as parents, what it means to unconditionally love, and what is healthy, and what is good.”

And above all, it’s a good springboard for conversations about the ethics of genetic research.

“I think it’s a nice shorthand for dystopian futures and a way for people to imagine them, and a kickoff point for thinking about things in a more deep way,” Hochstrasser said. “Sometimes people are limited in their imagination and when you’re trying to have these discussions on the societal implications of science and how we all need to collectively care about these things in order to make the future something we want, it can be useful to have a reference point like that.”

This piece was originally published on Future Tense, a partnership between Slate magazine, Arizona State University, and New America.

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