The Genomic Oracle: Evolution and DNA Seuencing

While researching for the upcoming paper assignment, I had just decided on Gattaca for my topic of choice. Gattaca is a 1997 sci-fi film which explores the concept of eugenics in a world where the embryo is selected preimplantation through genetic predisposition testing to ensure the best possible result of the two parents. In some ways this is like an extreme case of natural selection but forced instead of by chance.
The following article written by Carl Zimmer, a New York Times column author, talks about the recent scientific advancement of genome mapping. Like in Gattaca, we can now map the entire genome sequence of individuals thanks to scientists like James Watson who co-discovered the structure of DNA. This genomic testing opens up many doors for discovering gene’s that could be harmful later in life. Genetic markers like ApoE4 (Alzheimer’s Disease ) and BRCA1 (Breast Cancer) can now be identified in newborns. These markers are determining the future, sometimes seventy years in advance determining fate.
A new study will be taking place soon called BabySeq, where 480 newborns will have their DNA sequences and the results given to their primary physician in order to answer  “If you have your genome readily available from birth, how is that likely to influence your life?”
While this seems like a step in the right direction, this concept could have consequences. The study is currently being reviewed by an ethical board, for rightful reasons. Sequencing DNA and revealing your health for life is a scary matter. Should the results be told to the patient? Will these results impact the way a person lives his /her life? And where will this research go? It is important to consider the natural process of genetics, evolution and natural selection. It seems to me that this is the beginning research that could lead to an unethical eugenics based world similar to what’s seen in Gattaca.

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8 Responses to The Genomic Oracle: Evolution and DNA Seuencing

  1. secondcitytocapitalcity says:

    When I watched the movie Gattaca in my freshman biology class, my teacher started it by telling the class about his experience before his first son was born. His wife was older and this meant that the baby was more likely to have developmental problems. Because of that, the doctors decided to do some extra testing and if there was any problems, my teacher and his wife could consider abortion. There were never any problems with the pregnancy, but my teacher wanted us to consider the situation that he and his wife would have been put in if there happened to be problems while we were watching Gattaca. While this is different than the scenario poised in Gattaca, they both have to do with predetermining the fate of a child before he/she is born.

    I do not have any objections to Babyseq or any other genetic research because I think that science should try to discover anything and everything as long as it is done in an ethical way.
    However, I think that people should not jump to any extreme conclusions about the significance of any study. For example, in Gattaca, the main character could not get a job because of his genetics, but when he started using another persons DNA, he was able to perform fine in that job. This is an example where incorrect conclusions are drawn from valid genetic research.

  2. sm1414 says:

    I think that the moral question that secondcitytocapitalcity raises with the example of his biology teacher is exactly the reason that many people fear genetic research and question its morality. It is important that we continue to study the human genome because it could present cures for harmful genetic diseases. It could also be used to prevent cancer and other diseases that an individual may be genetically inclined to contract. At the same time, we as a society have to balance the idea of making the lives of certain individuals better while questioning what actions are too extreme or perhaps immoral or unethical. For example, aborting a child because the parents do not prefer the gender of the child or choosing specific genes to ensure that an unborn child will one day be the smartest person in the world or the strongest person in the world is wrong. While genetic research can unlock the cures to many awful genetic diseases, it could also lead to unethical behavior.

    I think that practicing artificial selection on human fetuses could be both a good practice and a bad practice. If there was to diagnose and cure a genetic disease before the child is even born, then genetic research and genetic mapping has done its job perfectly and should be used. The life of the child will undoubtedly be improved by fixing the genetic problem. However, I would also include that I have learned the most from those people who have had genetic impairments. At my school, there was a club called Best Buddies that paired Special Education students with “regular” students. We would organize events for these students. I believe that I learned more from these students who worked so hard to do things that I do every day without thinking about it. It made me strive to be a better person and to try harder in my life. While removing these genetic diseases would undoubtedly improve the lives of these students, is it possible that we as a species could lose something by fixing these genetic diseases?

  3. nicolina1215 says:

    I agree with sm1414 in that we do need to continue researching human genomes and their predictions of potential disease and mutations. This research could lead to disease and cancer prevention tactics, as well as identifying new diseases that might be emerging or spreading. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that research for cures comes at a price – most likely, the price of a family’s mental safety and security. In a different article discussing Green’s study, Carey Goldberg explains some of the psychological damages that come along with prematurely telling a family of their child’s potential diseases. He says, “it fills them with fear, apprehension; it interferes with parent-child bonding; it may cause medical procedures that were not necessary; those procedures might have not only financial costs but side effects. So there’s a whole cascade of downstream bad outcomes that people are legitimately concerned about.” ( Personally, I don’t think I would like to know about any adult-onset diseases that my child might contract for the same reasons stated above. I would never want that knowledge to affect not only my connection with my child, but also that gnawing feeling of being exposed to a known but hidden enemy. I would never feel safe. I would probably treat my child differently without even knowing it.

    Studying the human genome is a great scientific tool to identifying new diseases or finding way to treat known ones. The problem still lies in the families who have to go through the testing before any cure is found. Major ethical issues lie between a child’s healthy future and a family’s current psychological distress, which begs the question, how do doctors and scientists find out the right balance? Much like sm1414 said, there are both benefits and problems with practicing artificial selection on human fetuses. I fear that our society will suffer a huge moral degeneration if the option to remove or change genomes becomes a possibility. People may not feel that they have to work for anything if any trait they desire for themselves or their children can appear at a simple request. In conclusion, studying the human genome is practical and useful research. On the other hand, changing genomes or acting on that research must be further analyzed and scrutinized.

  4. I would like to raise another moral issue that goes along with what secondcitytocapitalcity brought up. Not would it be considered immoral to possibly reveal the secrets of life at such a young age, but the fact that it is a infant. The fact that it is an infant means that they cannot yet think or talk for themselves yet. Parents take care of their children, raise them to maturity, but a decision on whether or not to sequence DNA without the consent of the patient should also be considered immoral. The parents have a responsibility to rear their children from birth but where a procedure like this, where life isn’t dependent on doing the procedure, like an abortion is, shouldn’t be left up to the parents. This procedure is unravelling the life of someone without their consent and without their knowledge even. I think it should ultimately be up to the person if their DNA should be sequenced. I know that the babies won’t know the difference when their young, but DNA makes up a person, and those decisions shouldn’t be made without the person’s consent. This argument is being made right now by groups of people that don’t believe babies should be circumcised without their own consent. So, is it considered okay just because the parents want their child undergo these procedures?

    • drc1995 says:

      As someone who is also focusing on Gattaca for our paper assignment, it is very interesting to see everyone else’s opinions. In response to Dantesnuggles’ comment though, I have to disagree.

      First off, I think we have to distinguish DNA sequencing from actual artificial selection. It’s not like DNA sequencing is changing the child at all yet. It is just giving a more all-encompassing look at DNA. This is something we already do on a smaller scale with genetic testing, as mentioned in the article. All this DNA sequencing would do would give greater insight into the predispositions children might develop and treatment. We aren’t actually changing anything in the child yet.

      Secondly, I wanted to continue to comment in response to Dantesnuggles and also a comment by nicolina1215, regarding the stress this DNA sequencing might have on a family or person. I can see where you are both coming from, but I have to disagree. A person who is at risk to develop a condition will find out sooner or later, and everyone involved can always take extra steps to get counseling or other help to deal with the news. This is what people do today anyway when they are diagnosed with something.

      The last thing I want to say is, don’t you think it would be better to know you might have a condition down the line and treat it now, rather than find out later and be helpless in stopping the condition? Personally, I would. Speaking from experience, I have various heart conditions that pass through my family, which I already have to a small degree but will probably develop more severely in the future. I would much rather have started getting treated effectively for what might come later than wait to take medication when it becomes too much of a problem like it is for my mother.

      Obviously we don’t have the data yet from the BabySeq study, but I think it will show that have genomes available at birth would be a great addition to the care and the treating of a person throughout their life. Again though, we aren’t there yet. We aren’t modifying DNA, just analyzing. If anything would be a problem, I think the only real question we have to consider would be, “might this go too far?”. I think the answer to that would be an yes eventually, but I think that is a discussion for another time.

  5. findwhatwind says:

    I think this sm1414 brings up a very important point in that this genetic testing could ultimately lead to all sorts of problems with eugenics, especially coming down to the functionalist theory that a person is only a person if they function independently. In some extreme cases, this theory states that people only have basic human rights if they function independently in society, therefore explicitly stating that very young children, the elderly, and otherwise disabled have no rights. (This is an excellent source for explaining the basics of this theory ) As is stated in this article, this theory has been used as a way to justify abortion.

    However, with this new possibility of sequencing an infant’s entire genome and picking out any possible defects, it would be a very small jump from using this theory to justify abortion to using this theory to justify eugenics and deciding who has the right to live and who will, in the future, not be able to function and therefore not have any rights. Although this is a relatively extremist view carried out to its most extreme extent, the content of movies such as GATTACA and other science fictions films which deal with these possible horrors of eugenics show that this is very much in the minds of the general public, at least to some extent. Although this seems as though it could potentially be life-saving to some infants born with genetic defects, it also provides the physical evidence for such extremists to carry out violent, Nazi-like levels of eugenics, and therefore could potentially cause more harm than it is worth for the relatively small chance of it resulting in something positive.

  6. djrosato says:

    Personally, I don’t see an issue with the BabySeq program, conceptually. I agree with nicolina1215 because it could be best to combat genetic diseases early in life as opposed to later. In addition, using the BabySeq study, we will finally be able to put numbers behind the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate. However, not to play the devil’s advocate, but I can see where the religious would find issue with this concept. With so much stock in a person’s biology, it does tend to minimize the importance of the actual person. In addition, the research question “If you have your genome readily available from birth, how is that likely to influence your life?” states the problem pretty straightforwardly: what if the person’s life is affected negatively? That subjects entire existence could be ruined, in an extreme case, for a science experiment. At the end of the day, it’s still a person’s life they are working off of. The BabySeq study isn’t without it’s benefits, but it’s not without it’s faults either. Like many things in the science world it’s a double edge sword.

  7. johnd0pe says:

    I personally don’t have any moral opposition to Babyseq. As far as I can tell, its intents are purely of genuine scientific value and the project doesn’t aim to impose itself upon anyone who is unwilling. The matter of “playing God,” to me, is more or less a meaningless distinction; whatever scientists and engineers choose to pursue in the scope of living things is to the benefit of humanity, so long as their research is conducted in a non-intrusive and non-exploitative manner.

    It seems that there are plenty of tremendous potential benefits which could be achieved through this type of research, and they shouldn’t be blocked off simply because people are preoccupied with their concerns based on science fiction films. Of course, if in the future the information gathered by Babyseq is being exploited for evil purposes, it would absolutely be legitimate to take action against it. However, to attempt to quell this preliminary research in anticipatory fear is like trying to prevent the discovery of electricity because of a moral opposition to the use of the electric chair.

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