By Kazi Hossain
In the latest blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers fight against a superpowered alien, Thanos, in order to save the world from total destruction. Interestingly enough, Captain America, a former US enlist who failed the physical requirements to be a soldier, shines as one of the toughest fighters in the Avengers. How did Captain America become such a key member in an already incredible team full of gods and mutants? It was the result of a Super Soldier Serum - a product of genetic engineering - that transformed Captain America from a scrawny teen into a superpowered fighter capable of protecting the world against an invincible alien.
In the eyes of cinema, genetic engineering serves as a breakthrough against the normal limitations of man and can grant almost instantaneous celebrity status. However, in our world, the future of genetic engineering is still puzzling, and researchers are currently deciphering not only the potentials of genetic engineering, but also the ethics surrounding it.
First, it is important to note that genetic engineering currently does not have the ability to create superhumans or gigantic animals. Unlike the indication in Rampage, CRISPR-Cas cannot edit whole genomes at a time. In fact, the CRISPR tool is only able to edit a particular DNA sequence in a particular gene one at a time.
CRISPR stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. The CRISPR tool utilizes a guide RNA CRISPR sequence to identify a specific DNA sequence and a cas protein to cut out the target DNA. Then, Homology Directed Repair can insert a repair template to the cut area to create specific changes to that specific sequence. This prevents the idea of superorganisms because traits such as strength and size are determined by numerous genes, as height has been recorded to include up to 93,000 genetic variations.
Furthermore, CRISPR is limited in the fact that it isn’t 100% successful. The CRISPR tool might not correctly target the right gene, and it also might not be able to use the DNA repair machinery to properly edit the gene.
Gattaca also introduces the concept of the ethics involving genetic engineering. In Gattaca, society is overtaken by a class hierarchy where designer babies - genetically modified embryos - reign over normal humans. However, current research has shown that CRISPR is unable to introduce new DNA into the embryo, as DNA repair machinery utilizes the parental alleles instead of the introduced DNA. This does introduce the question though as to what extent will genetic traits eventually influence the social standards of society.
As science attempts to meet science fiction, the current limitations of genetic engineering prohibit the future of a genetic world as portrayed in films. However, with the rapid evolution of genetic engineering, the public will be forced to draw the line between ethical and unethical research, and film may become the medium to present these scenarios in an easy-to-digest manner. The power of film may even dictate whether genetic engineering can become a weapon of mass destruction or the key to saving life on our planet.