Reel Science

The scariest sci-fi movie on Netflix reveals a controversial genetics debate IRL

Gattaca was ahead of its time at its release, but real life may have already surpassed the movie.

Columbia Pictures / Jersey Films

A parent greets their newborn child with joy, tears streaming down their face. It should be one of the happiest moments of their life.

And it is — until the attending doctor soberly rattles off a list of alarming statistics about their child’s health, including their likely death by age 30 due to a heart condition. In the following scene, the parents have opted to conduct state-of-the-art genetic screening of the embryo of their next child to ensure it is free of genetic diseases and comes with their preferred hair and eye color.

“This child is still you. Simply the best of you,” the doctor says, intending to reassure the parents — but there is something sinister in the implications of his speech.

Released in 1997, Gattaca was ahead of its time in examining the potentially chilling ramifications of a eugenicist society where widespread genetic testing is available, creating a stark divide between ideal “designer” babies” — known as “valid” — and those who are conceived without pre-screening — referred to derogatorily as “invalid.”

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.

Nearly 25 years after its release, are we any closer to making Gattaca a reality? And perhaps more importantly, should we?

According to Ronald Green, author of the book Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice and the founding director of the Office of Genome Ethics at the National Human Genome Research Institute, the answer to both questions is a resounding no.

“Most people don't want a perfect child,” he says. “They want a child just like themselves and free of serious disease. And that's how the technology will mostly be.”

Speaking to Inverse, Green and other geneticists discuss the real and fake science behind Gattaca.

Is the science in Gattaca realistic?

How does modern-day genetic screening stack up against Gattaca?Columbia Pictures / Jersey Films

In the movie, a scientist combines sperm from a father with the egg of a mother to create several embryos. Among those embryos, the scientists select the “most competent candidate” — the ideal embryo that is free of disease and best represents the parent’s preferred characteristics.

As it turns out, the fictional system in Gattaca bears a resemblance to the real-life practice of embryo selection, a technique used in in-vitro fertilization for parents experiencing fertility issues. Embryo selection occurs after pre-implantation genetic testing (known as PGT or PGD), which screens for gene mutations and birth defects in the embryo before it’s implanted in the mother’s uterus. PGT has been around for 30 years.

“The process can be used to screen out some diseases by checking the DNA of embryos and choosing not to transfer for possible implantation and birth embryos at high genetic risk for some diseases,” Henry T. (Hank) Greely, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences and the author of The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, tells Inverse.

There are two issues with pre-implantation genetic testing in real life that Gattaca doesn’t address.

  1. We can only screen out rare diseases like sickle cell or Huntington’s disease, but not more common issues like heart disease, asthma, and cancer susceptibility.
  2. In-vitro fertilization is expensive, risky, and unpleasant — issues the movie glosses over.
“I don’t think the premise of GATTACA is close at all...”

But it’s worth stressing: the babies in Gattaca — and in real life — are not technically “designer babies” since they only contain the parents’ DNA, and are not genetically modified to create superhumans.

“They would not be — are not and have not since 1990 been — “super babies,” Greely says.

Limited to the genetic information in the parents’ sperm and egg, you could avoid some rare diseases or perhaps select a few traits like sex, but you cannot create a baby with characteristics perfectly tailored to your liking.

“I don’t think the premise of GATTACA is close at all,” Greely concludes, adding “Genetics is not that powerful.”

Furthermore, Gattaca’s premise assumes that all diseases are rooted in DNA errors or mutations, but it’s simply not possible to screen out and eliminate all diseases through DNA alone, says A. Cecile J.W. Janssens, a research professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health with expertise in the genetic prediction of diseases.

“Most diseases and definitely traits occur because of DNA variations and environmental influences,” Janssens tells Inverse. “These cannot be ‘programmed’ in DNA.”

“... genetics is not that powerful.”

Gattaca’s use of genetic screening to precisely predict a child’s tendency toward mental health issues like schizophrenia or ADHD is also implausible — for now.

“I think so many of these conditions like intelligence, IQ, performance, cognitive tendency toward depression — they're not one gene. They're an orchestra of genes working together. I think to get any kind of precision in these areas is years off,” Green says.

But Green also thinks genetic screening to reduce the likelihood of diseases like Alzheimer's “eventually will happen,” in the distant future.

What would a modern-day Gattaca look like?

Would CRISPR’s gene editing abilities bring us closer to a society of designer babies, as suggested by Gattaca?Getty

But although some of the sci-fi elements of Gattaca still elude us, you could argue that we are beginning to transcend the movie in one big way: gene editing of babies in embryo.

“Gene editing is the next step in embryo selection,” Green says. In recent years, scientists have fine-tuned a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, which “permits a clinician or scientist to go in and selectively remove or replace any gene sequence in the genome.”

For example, rather than simply screening an embryo for disease, you could theoretically go in and alter the genes associated with the disease. But this is still largely a theoretical exercise.

“Yes, we could potentially edit diseases out of embryos, but we don’t know the degree of risk,” Greely says.

“Gene editing is the next step in embryo selection.”

In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui, faced serious backlash when he used CRISPR to edit the genes of twin girls in embryos to make them resistant to HIV. Greely thinks this practice of using CRISPR to gene edit human embryos is still far too dangerous for it to become widespread.

“There is nowhere close to enough evidence that this is safe for the babies involved to make it anything other than extremely reckless,” Greely says.

Green agrees, “He acted as a rogue scientist in every way, even though what he was doing in principle, could well be done in the future with acceptability.”

Does Gattaca raise real-life ethical concerns?

Some scientists are concerned about genetic screening and gene editing, while others say ethical questions raised by Gattaca are not as relevant as the movie suggests. Columbia Pictures / Jersey Films

The future envisioned by Gattaca, is, frankly, downright terrifying. The divide between “valid” and “invalid” individuals leads to widespread discrimination in society.

The protagonist, Vincent Freeman, was conceived through natural means and has genetic disorders, unlike his “valid” brother. Vincent dreams of going to space, but because of discrimination against people like him, he must use the DNA of a former athlete to achieve his dreams.

“The premise of that society was flawed.”

Greely says that, right now, genetics prediction is not advanced enough for us to put restrictions on genetic screening technology, though other experts have raised concerns about widespread genetic testing in embryo selection.

If “we improve our reproduction technologies enough to make this kind of intervention feasible for any beyond a tiny percentage of humanity, we may want to act then,” Greely says, such as banning discrimination — like the kind seen in Gattaca — and providing equitable access to the technology.

Ultimately, the movie’s premise relies on a sort of flawed genetic determinism, when, in reality, our outcomes depend on so much more than DNA, like our upbringing and family income.

“The premise of that society was flawed. Genetics is NOT destiny and our hero, the ‘invalid’ goes to Saturn, while a ‘valid’ committed murder,” Greely says.

Gattaca is streaming now on Netflix.