14. Genetics – Simply the Best of You

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is commonly known to be the fundamental instructional information that lays the blueprints for not only humans, but every organism on the planet. Alongside proteins and complex carbohydrates, they are essential macromolecules required for all known forms of life. Essentially, DNA is a long line of nucleotides (either cytosine, guanine, adenine or thymine), molecules that when read in their unique sequence, form instructions which dictate everything from cognitive heart conditions to the colour of your hair.


Since the discovery and molecular understanding of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin in 1953, scientists have been fascinated by the purpose and mechanism of DNA. Genetic engineering (the alteration to an organism’s DNA for a specific purpose) is now a thriving field in science, making huge impact in healthcare, conservation, industry and agriculture, and whilst there are huge benefits to genetic engineering, it has always been a controversial topic and is still often found in the news (e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/18/business/genetically-engineered-crops-are-safe-analysis-finds.html).


As our understanding of DNA has increased, it has been shown that DNA is able to predict certain characteristics (known as phenotypes), such as likelihood of developing certain diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24838911) to the ability to achieve success when playing sports (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26812785). Whilst it is obviously hugely beneficial to identify illness and disease earlier in life (and maybe even before onset of symptoms), what happens when people start to use your genetic information to determine what you can or cannot do? Should playing sport be left only to those with the genetic ability to achieve greater results? Should you have to pay a higher life insurance premium if you have a genetic disposition to a disease? Should you not be allowed to work at a top-tier company if you don’t have the genetic makeup to back up your CV?


To investigate these questions we are dissecting the science within Gattaca, the 1997 Sci-Fi movie directed by Andrew Niccol, which follows Ethan Hawke’s character as he attempts to land his dream job at a space agency who cannot get the job due to genetic discrimination. In this episode we are joined by Professor Mark Enright, Professor of Medical Microbiology who takes us through a journey of genetic profiling, genetic disorders and the debate around eugenics.



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