In the 1997 thriller Gattaca, Ethan Hawke goes to great lengths to hide his DNA from a society that’s determined his cells are not up to snuff. If only in the movie’s future, he had discovered what a group of Israeli scientists have recently proven — that it’s entirely possible, and not even that difficult, to falsify DNA evidence.
According to the abstract, “It turns out that standard molecular biology techniques… enable anyone with basic equipment and know-how to produce practically unlimited amounts of in vitro synthesized (artificial) DNA with any desired genetic profile.” Meaning that with just a little wherewithal, Ethan Hawke might have been able to avoid storing copious amounts of an Olympic athlete’s urine (what is he, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency?), taking those uncomfortable exfoliating scrubs, and oh yes, chopping off his freaking legs.
Hawke’s Vincent Freeman isn’t the only character from science fiction who could have benefitted from this discovery: Having such information at his disposal might have been useful to Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd — when his DNA turns up on a murder weapon, he’s sent to the Aspen Penal Colony (where there is no après-ski, tragically). At least somebody in that universe discovered how easy it is to whip up a batch of Sly.
Dan Frumkin, the lead author of the paper, maintains that “Any biology undergraduate could perform this.” And forensic procedures currently in use cannot distinguish between naturally-occurring and manufactured DNA. But for every problem, a solution: Nucleix, a company Dr. Frumkin founded, has developed a “DNA authentication” assay that can distinguish between — to borrow terminology from Gattaca — valid and in-valid DNA samples.
This is that rare scenario in which science fact seems to have overtaken science fiction, since DNA is rarely created in movies, although it’s quite often appropriated, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. In the recent District 9, the aliens’ weapons can only be activated by using their DNA, forcing unscrupulous Nigerians to use cat food as currency — when it might be so much simpler to just brew up a batch of “shrimp” genes!
Just because we can fake DNA doesn’t necessarily mean we’re headed toward a society where gene discrimination is the norm. After all, what good is weeding out the “bad seeds” when all you have to do is sprinkle them with a little “fertilizer”? Even still, it might not hurt to get your super DNA batches ready, just in case one day the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation comes calling.Read More