Saturday, March 29, 2014

GATTACA and modern biology

I was just watching the movie GATTACA, an old (and fairly mediocre) sci-fi movie from 1997 with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. The movie is about a future in which the vast majority of humans are genetically engineered and constant genetic testing determines your entire future. Ethan Hawke is naturally conceived (a "God child" from a "faith birth") who ends up having all sorts of genetic flaws but somehow conquers the odds to succeed despite his genes.

Throughout the movie, they're always plugging samples into little devices that read out your sequence to determine what you're all about. I guess we're not all that far away from that now. I just got back from a Cold Spring Harbor Lab meeting about systems biology, and certainly in biology, that era's already here–people just sequence everything in sight. What's funny is that maybe the message of the movie applies just as much to modern biology as to society: maybe just sequencing everything won't reveal everything about how a cell works. It just happens to be what we're able to do.

There's an interesting line in the movie when Ethan Hawke takes over the identity of a "valid" (a person with good genes played by Jude Law) and in the process, he notes that "We don't look anything alike", to which the identity swapper agent guy says "When was the last time anyone looked at a photograph?" I was thinking, again, so true in biology, nobody even looks at cells anymore. Ah, but we do, I thought! But before I got too pleased with myself, I remembered that even our images are based on nucleic acid sequences!

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