If you could choose to read your future, how much would you want to know? Once questions of the future, these are now things we must ask ourselves. In the new age of gene sequencing, researchers can comb through a person’s genetic material to identify genetic mutations or incorrect nucleotides. This new ability presents both a vast expanse of new possibilities for healthcare and disease treatment, but also introduces a question of ethics and classism.
The film Cracking the Genetic Code produced by NOVA PBS takes a closer look at the new insight offered by easily accessible gene sequencing. Certain companies, such as 23&Me, use a technique called genotyping to explain certain traits and determine any possibilities of genetic predispositions to medical conditions or illnesses. While having access to this kind of information can be helpful in helping a person to change certain parts of their lifestyle, such as diet or exercise, the knowledge of even the possibility of having an untreatable condition can ruin a person’s life. One woman chose to have her genome sequenced to see if she would one day have Huntington’s disease, which her grandfather had. Upon receiving the news that one day she would contract the disease, many family members stopped talking to her and cut ties with her completely. In addition, these results are not always correct. There are discrepancies in results from different genotyping companies, since different companies look at different parts of DNA and make predictions based highly on probability. Often times, these predictions are not accurate and many say that any form of medical diagnosis should come only from a medical professional.
One thing that has started happening is the testing of embryos for mutations. Embryos are grown in a lab and checked for any genetic mishaps that may lead to problems. Only mutation free embryos are implanted in mothers. While this practice does lead to healthier children and less challenges for families that would otherwise have to face years of health problems, this also leads to a greater discussion about the possibility of an emergence of “designer babies.” Many think that if science continues down the path it’s on, people can begin to pick and choose desirable traits in their babies, such as intelligence, height, physical ability, eye color, or hair color. While science is currently not at the level to easily reprogram a person’s genome to fit those traits, many worry that advancement of genome sequencing can lead to discrimination based on genetic information and affect the kind of people that can rise to power, bringing on a new form of social class based on genetics.
What most surprised me about everything presented in this film was how easy it was for a gene to become mutated. In the entire sequence of millions of Gs, As, Cs, and Ts, all it took was for one letter to be out of place. A boy with a single wrong letter had a condition that ate holes in his intestines. Only three missing letters lead to cystic fibrosis. This movie truly put into perspective the fragility and complexity of our genetic makeup and how much of an impact a single mistake can have on a person’s life.
I think that while advancement of genome sequencing is a great accomplishment and is interesting to learn about, I also think that advancing the technology could be problematic. With life expectancy for humans becoming longer and longer, worldwide populations have soared. With this kind of new technology, it can be expected that population will only increase. Especially with the current environmental state, I think it is important to take a step back and evaluate whether improving this technology is a good idea. While I think that alleviating family suffering by searching for cures for genetic diseases is incredibly important work, I can’t help but wonder about the implications that such cures have for our world.
“Huntington’s Disease.” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, http://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/types-of-dementia/huntington-s-disease.
NOVA PBS Official. “NOVA | Cracking Your Genetic Code.” YouTube, YouTube, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPzid88oSFc.