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"We now have discrimination down to a science."—Vincent in Gattaca
One of the most frequently used movies in high school science classes is Gattaca. Although released in 1997, it still holds up in the second decade of the 21st century. As I haven't written about it before, the end of the school year seemed a good time to do so, since many high school science teachers have more freedom after state testing is completed.
Gattaca is set in "the not-too-distant future," making the world it depicts especially chilling. Genetic testing has become so inexpensive, quick, and powerful that the information revealed can be used in startling ways. An individual's DNA can be sequenced in minutes, and the results indicate the presence or absence of a host of diseases and "defects" including myopia, heart trouble, and premature hair loss. Parents select the traits of their children through in vitro fertilization and can choose sex, hair color, eye color, and even skin tone. A few people are still conceived in what we would call the normal way, and those infants are screened at birth and given an expected life span or "expiration date."
Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a naturally conceived kid who dreams of traveling into space with an organization called Gattaca. Unfortunately, his DNA indicates a heart condition that limits his life expectancy to a mere 30 years, so he is designated "invalid" and limited to working as a janitor or other menial jobs. Jude Law plays Jerome, a "valid" swimming star with near perfect genes who was paralyzed in an accident. Jerome is willing to sell his DNA identity to Vincent, a process that requires some extraordinary measures. Using Jerome's DNA, Vincent obtains a position as celestial navigator at Gattaca, and is scheduled to go on a one-year mission to Titan, the sixth moon of Saturn. As the launch date approaches, the mission director (who had opposed this particular trip) is found murdered, and the film takes on a CSI meets Columbo flavor.
A blood sample being taken from a newborn's heel in Gattaca.
This 14-year-old film has been so popular with science teachers that you'll find quite a bit of material online to inspire your lesson planning. The ethics of genetic engineering, in vitro fetal screening, and the use of genetic information by insurance companies are frequently addressed in connection with Gattaca. All are worthy topics, and the recent DVD edition includes a 15-minute video on the science of the film, which teachers could use in the classroom. It might also be worthwhile to compare and contrast what science can do in Gattaca with what is possible today. The most obvious difference is the speed with which a DNA sample can be sequenced, since present-day technology requires days or even weeks to return a partial sequence. Some prenatal genetic screening is possible today through tests such as amniocentesis or maternal blood protein tests, which can detect Down Syndrome, spina bifida, or Tay Sachs in the first or second trimester of pregnancy. However, this is a far cry from being able to select the child's hair color and skin tone, and avoid having him or her wear glasses or braces, as shown in the movie. The probability of premature death is now predicted through behaviors (smoking and seat-belt use, for example) rather than genetic testing.
We now know much more about Titan than we did when Gattaca was made in 1997. The Cassini-Huygens mission included an orbiting craft and a lander, which arrived at Titan in 2004. We now know that Titan has an atmosphere of mostly nitrogen, and it appears to have methane rain which forms lakes and seas. Chunks of water ice are scattered across the surface, and there is some evidence of cryovolcanoes (volcanoes that erupt water and ice instead of molten rock.)
To assume the identity of the valid Jerome, Vincent has to systematically erase his own identity. He has to scrub off his dead skin and loose hair every morning to avoid leaving traces of his own genetic code behind. He is also too short to be convincing as Jerome, so he undergoes a painful leg-lengthening procedure. This process is used today to correct problems of uneven limb length, but it is very slow. The two-inch extension shown in the film would take about six months. (See this web page for more information about this procedure.)
The writer-director Andrew Niccol invented some great language for this film, and a part of a lesson plan could be to have students define terms like "invalid," "valid," "eutero," "vitro," "faith birth," "made man," "borrowed ladder," and "de-gene-erate." (See the glossary at the end of this column for more.)
Anyone interested in genetic engineering or science ethics should check out Gattaca, and biology teachers might also use portions of the film to spark conversation about DNA data security.
- borrowed ladder—an invalid who pays for the use of another person's DNA for fraudulent purposes.
- de-gene-erate—a stronger term for an invalid. Someone with poor DNA.
- eutero—someone born without the benefit of genetic engineering.
- faith birth—a baby who's genetic makeup was left to chance. A eutero.
- Hoover—a government agent. An allusion to J. Edgar Hoover, and Hoover vacuums since they use vacuums to pick up skin and hair samples for DNA evidence.
- Invalid—a person who is presumed to be susceptible to disease and a short life span based upon DNA. Probably born without the benefit of genetic screening and engineering.
- made man—someone designed by geneticists. A valid.
- valid—a person with near-perfect DNA, created through genetic engineering.
- vitro—another term for a "valid."
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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