During Team AP Bio’s exploration of DNA, we watched a movie/documentary called Cracking the Code of Life. This movie is about the mystery and wonder of the human genome. The complete letter-by-letter sequence of the genetic information that defines human life is one of the biggest scientific prizes ever, and this movie captures the race to win this prize.

I learned quite a lot from this movie! DNA structure, function, and mutations were all discussed. The bulk of this film was focused on the exciting race between two groups to finish mapping the human genome first. The Human Genome Project, a public company funded by the government, was the first to announce their journey through the genome. Not much later, a private business called Celera upped the game by saying that they would not only beat the Human Genome Project to the punch, but they’d do it in a much shorter amount of time than originally planned too! I found the amount of technology that was used to map the genome fascinating — it both helped speed up the process but, as the documentary shows, caused many a technical difficulty. The machines they had could read 1000 letters of DNA per second as opposed to the painstakingly slow handwritten method of a few hundred letters per day. Cracking the Code of Life followed the journey of these two companies and in the end, the winner was (drum roll please)…..everyone!

Both Celera and the Human Genome Project agreed that the work they had done was, in fact, a joint effort. I was not surprised when they worked together on this, after all, reading all 3 billion letters of a human genome is quite a daunting, herculean task. I enjoyed learning about these groups and their challenge very much, and I am excited to see what great new scientific discoveries will be upon us in the future — and are happening right now!

Although I enjoyed this whole movie immensely, I would have to say that the thing that most interested me was learning about Tay Sachs. Tay Sachs is a genetic condition that slowly destroys a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Babies with Tay Sachs are normal at birth, but over the course of their first year of life, they begin to miss developmental milestones such as turning over, standing, walking, and talking. Eventually, children with Tay Sachs lose the ability to move and start to have frequent seizures and go blind. Children with Tay Sachs do not survive past the age of 7. And all of this is caused by one single base change in the baby’s DNA. A single bad letter — a mistake that can come down to just 4 atoms — can cause so much sorrow. This one bad letter leads to a problem in the protein that is supposed to dissolve fat in the brain and because the fat no longer dissolves properly, it eventually strangles and crushes the baby’s brain. This part of the movie was heart-wrenching, and I am not ashamed to say that I cried.

Emotions and ethics are undeniably entangled with science, and this is just one example of that. Cracking the Code of Life also addresses the ethics regarding patenting genetic codes and public access to medical records. I enjoyed this film very much, and it taught me many things that I would never have dreamed of knowing before. For instance, now I know that we are genetically 50% identical to bananas! It was very humbling to watch this movie and see how complex and fragile our lives are. If you’re looking for an interesting and exciting movie about the human genome, you can watch Cracking the Code of Life yourself right here!

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