[26 June 2012]
Cracking Your Genetic Code, from the PBS series Nova, examines dramatic new breakthroughs in genetic research. The documentary opens with a young man plugging a jump drive into his laptop. At first glance, the jump drive appears to be the kind you can buy at Wal-Mart for $20. Yet this jump drive contains the young man’s entire genome on six gigs of storage.
“Within the next five years, each of us can have our complete genome sequenced for less than a thousand dollars,” states Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health.
The implications are staggering. The human genome is a master template that’s 99.9 percent identical among all humans. The value of individual genome sequencing is in identifying mutations that a person has in their genome. Detection of mutations can trigger preventive treatment of potential diseases and early diagnosis can lead to lifestyle changes, proper medication, and potential cures.
After genome typing, Francis Collins discovered that he had a substantially high risk of Type 2 diabetes. “That got me motivated,” Collins says. “I’m 27 pounds lighter today than I was two years ago and I work out three times a week.”
But individual sequencing can result in a ‘Cassandra Effect’ where bad news is psychologically devastating. “What if you have a genetic mutation and it doesn’t matter how you live your life or what drugs you take?” asks Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School. “What if no matter what you do, you’ll still get this disease before you’re fifty years old?”
After genome sequencing, James Watson, co-founder of the DNA double helix, didn’t want to know the sequence of his APOE4 gene on Chromosome 19, a marker for Alzheimer’s disease; if a common variant is present, it represents a 3-to-10 fold increased risk in contracting Alzheimer’s. “Not everyone can handle genetic testing and this information,” adds Catherine Elton, the author of The Burden of Knowing, “If you’re going to get a disease, that knowledge affects the way you live for the rest of you life.“
A groundbreaking development in gene therapy is Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) where an embryo from a fertilized egg is genetically engineered to eliminate undesirable traits. The social implications cannot be measured in a laboratory.
Given a layman’s understanding of these issues, there are a number of consequences in genetic advances that are not mentioned in the documentary. If we eliminate undesirable mutations in the human genome as PGD is designed to do, then future generations will become more similar, diminishing variation across the human gene pool. And if that’s the case, then a more homogenous human population will be at greater risk when a viral or bacterial outbreak goes pandemic.
There’s also the danger of eugenics, where the value of a human life is determined by a preferable genome. Since moral issues cannot be weighed by science, we must look elsewhere, perhaps in unlikely places.
The 1997 anime classic Ghost in the Shell is one of the most astute statements on genetic engineering in the modern era. Set in a futuristic Japan, Section 9 is a government agency that employs both humans and cyborgs to guard state security. One of the main concerns of the film is the existence of a ‘ghost’ or moral nature in cyborgs—whether a genetically altered life form still possesses a soul.
Major Kusanagi is a beautiful cyborg assassin. When a human asks why he was transferred into Section 9, she replies: “Because we need a guy like you… you’re almost completely human. If we’re all engineered the same way, then we become predictable. It’s slow death.”
A foreign intelligence agency recruits agents by “ghost-hacking” Japanese citizens and reprogramming their memories. Questions soon arise about whether these victims are still human. While interrogating a victim of ghost-hacking, Kusanagi asks: “Can you tell us what your mother looked like? Or where you grew up?”
The terrified victim cannot answer. The ghost has been extinguished, and all that remains is the shell. In a scene with Bateau, another cyborg agent, Kusanagi betrays an existential angst about her own persona.
Kusanagi: Maybe I’m paranoid about my origins. Perhaps there never was a real me…and I’m totally synthetic.
Bateau: You were once human, but it sounds like you doubt your own ghost.
The moral issues may be interesting for the contemplative, but economic imperatives will always trump philosophical questions. In the United States, where for-profit health insurers provide access to medical care, the predictive power of genome sequencing has dark implications. “What if insurance companies gain access to this information?” asks Jay Adelson, who recently completed genome typing.
American health care reform is now in danger of repeal by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Since American employers bear much of the cost of health care insurance, an abnormality in your genome could lead to future employment discrimination. In Britain, David Cameron’s Conservative government is trying to privatize part of the National Health Service.
Given the ascendency of dog-eat-dog capitalism in the West, it’s safe to assume that the future of genetic engineering will reflect the underlying economic system that funds it: a Darwinian imperative to eliminate the weak and advance the strong.
Yet what will this brave new world look like? What will happen to the artistic temperament in a more homogenous society? And after the human genome is scrubbed of undesirable variants, what will become of the ghost in the shell, the spirit within that makes us unique?
There are no extras with this DVD.