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.