Design Your Own Child

The full-page ads proclaimed: Children made to order. Prospective parents could choose from a checklist of traits, including skin color, perfect eyesight, and protection against premature baldness, for their offspring. The ad even provides a toll-free telephone number and a Web address "for an appointment." For a moment it seemed like an amazing advance in genetic engineering, but the fine print at the bottom of the page revealed that the ad--placed in leading newspapers published in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.--is promoting a science fiction movie called GATTACA, set to open late next month. Brace yourself for increasing hype over genetic enhancement in the coming weeks.

In the world of GATTACA (a play on the letters of the genetic code), genetic engineering is common, and choice jobs are reserved for the genetically enhanced. Because the movie's hero Vincent, played by Ethan Hawke, is a naturally born "in-valid," he is confined to the genetically imperfect underclass. He passes himself off as a "valid," however, in hopes of joining a mission to Saturn's moon Titan sponsored by the GATTACA corporation. When the mission director is found murdered, Vincent becomes the chief suspect.

The ads are scheduled to run in newspapers across the country as the 24 October release date nears. Visitors to the Web site (www.gattaca.com) can "design a child" with or without certain traits, and an online forum to discuss the ethics of genetic engineering will be launched in a few weeks.

Scientists' reactions to the movie and the ad campaign are mixed. W. French Anderson, a gene therapy researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who served as an unpaid scientific consultant, says the movie, while clearly fiction, is free of glaring scientific errors. The story is "a thoughtful analysis of what society would be like if genetic engineering were used [at will]," he says.

But gene therapy researcher Theodore Friedmann of the University of California, San Diego--who has not seen the movie--is not so complimentary. He says the ads are misleading, leaving out the difficulties that stand in the way of effective gene therapy. But he hopes that the hype may have the side benefit of increasing public debate about the real possibility of genetic enhancement.

Posted in Biology