In a scene from the 2007 movie Gattaca, co-star Uma Thurman steals a follicle of hair from of love-interest Ethan Hawke and takes it to the local DNA sequencing booth (presumably they’re everywhere, like McDonald’s) to find out if Hawke’s DNA is worthy of her affections. She passes the follicle in a paper thin wrapper through a pass-through window as if she were buying a ticket for a movie. The attendant asks, “You want a full sequence?” Thurman confirms, and then waits anxiously. Meanwhile, others step up to windows to submit their samples. A woman who just kissed her boyfriend has her lips swabbed and assures the attendant that the sample is only a couple of minutes old. In about a minute, Thurman receives a plastic tube with the results rolled up inside. Behind the glass, a voice says, “Nine point three. Quite a catch!”
In the futuristic society depicted in the movie, humans are either “valid” or “invalid.” Though discrimination based on your genetic profile is illegal and referred to as “genoism,” it is widely known to be a distinguishing factor in employment, promotion, and finding the right soul-mate.
Enter the story of Illumina, which I discovered by way of a FastCompany article earlier this week. Illumina is a hardware/software company. One might imagine them as the folks who make the fictitious machines behind the DNA booths in a science fiction future. Except they are already making them now. The company, which few of us have ever heard of, has 5,000 employees and more than $2 billion in annual revenues. Illumina’s products are selling like hotcakes, in both the clinical and consumer spheres.
“Startups have already entered the clinical market with applications for everything from “liquid biopsy” tests to monitor late-stage cancers (an estimated $1 billion market by 2020, according to the business consulting firm Research and Markets), to non-invasive pregnancy screenings for genetic disorders like Down Syndrome ($2.4 billion by the end of 2022).”
According to FastCo,
“Illumina has captured more than 70% of the sequencing market with these machines that it sells to academics, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and more.”
You and I can do this right now. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe will work up a profile of your DNA from a little bit of saliva and sent through the mail. In a few weeks after submitting your sample, these companies will send you a plethora of reports on your carrier status (for passing on inherited conditions), ancestry reports that track your origins, wellness reports, such as your propensity to be fat or thin, and your traits like blue eyes or a unibrow. All of this costs about $200. Considering that sequencing DNA on this scale was a pipe dream ten years ago, it’s kind of a big deal. They don’t sequence everything; that requires one of Illumina’s more sophisticated machines and costs about $3,000.
If you put this technology in the context of my last post about exponential technological growth. Then it is easy to see that the price of machines, the speed of analysis, and the cost of a report is only going to come down, and faster than we think. At this point, everything will be arriving faster than we think. Here, if only to get your attention, I ring the bell. Illumina is investing in companies that bring this technology to your smartphone. With one company, Helix, “A customer might check how quickly they metabolize caffeine via an app developed by a nutrition company. Helix will sequence the customers’ genomic data and store it centrally, but the nutrition company delivers the report back to the user.” The team from Helix, “[…]that the number of people who have been sequenced will drastically increase […]that it will be 90% of people within 20 years.” (So, probably ten years is a better guess.)
According to the article, the frontier for genomics is expanding.
“What comes next is writing DNA, and not just reading it. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are making it cheaper and faster to move genes around, which has untold consequences for changing the environment and treating disease.”
CRISPR can do a lot more than that.
But, as usual, all of these developments focus on the bright side, the side that saves lives and not the uncomfortable or unforeseen. There is the potential that you DNA will determine your insurance rates, or even if you get insurance. Toying around with these realms, it is not difficult to imagine that you can “Find anyone’s DNA,” like you can find anybody’s address or phone number. Maybe we see this feature incorporated into dating sites. You won’t have to steal a hair follicle from your date; it will already be online, and if they don’t publish it, certainly people will ask, “What do you have to hide?”
And then there’s the possibility that your offspring might inherit an unfavorable trait, like that unibrow or maybe Down Syndrome. So maybe those babies will never be born, or we’ll use CRISPER to make sure the nose is straight, the eyes are green, the skin is tan, and the IQ is way up there. CRISPER gene editing and splicing will be expensive, of course. Some will be able to afford it. The rest? Well, they’ll have to find a way to love their children flaws and all. So here are my questions? Will this make us more human or less human? Will our DNA become just another way to judge each other on how smart, or thin, or good looking, or talented? Is it just another way to distinguish between the haves and have-nots?
If the apps are already in design, Uma Thurman may not have long to wait.