First, I have to confess that this is one that I have wanted to do for a long time, and it is one of the topics that created the idea of Anime Science 101. Gundam Seed also happens to be one of my favorite mecha anime. Gundam Seed premiered in October 2002 and ran until September 2003; a sequel, Gundam Seed Density, ran from October 2004 to October 2005. While it did not do as well here in the West, it was a smash hit in Japan and is one of their top Gundam series of all time. A short OVA was made, and while a movie sequel to Destiny never saw the light of day, its manga side stories and model kits did extremely well. It can be seen as something of a reboot of the original Mobile Suit Gundam as it shares many plot ideas and elements, including mecha designs and advanced humans going by the moniker coordinator.
These advanced humans are known as Coordinators, and their origin is much less natural than the Newtypes of universal century fame. Perhaps, as a way to include the real world discoveries and technologies in DNA made since 1979, the Coordinators are first created in a lab, designer babies who are genetically superior to normal humans. From a cultural standpoint, it was an interesting point as this idea of genetically modifying humans was being discussed back then and it still is today, with the ever-advancing march of genetic technology.
In order to discuss the idea of genetically enhanced people, we first have to examine the ability to actually change a person’s DNA. The short answer to all of this is “yes” and there have been some successes that you can check out here.
As for how it works, I need to talk about viruses for a second. Viruses are strands of DNA or RNA that enter living cells and proceed to take them over. These virus controlled cells then produce new copies of the original virus until the cell dies, usually by having so many virus particles inside of it that it bursts like a balloon.
Or as one of my students asked his friends during the lesson. “So is it like that time in Naruto?”
“Yes, it is exactly like that.”
Anyway, the virus matters because some viruses will actually cut our DNA apart and insert itself into our own DNA. One example of this is the adeno-associated virus which, while it infects humans, it doesn’t harm us in any way. This makes them the perfect vehicle for changing a person’s DNA. The technology may have changed over the years with the onset of things like CRISPR. What makes CRISPR different is that in the old method you weren’t removing the bad DNA, but just adding another segment of good DNA to the individual’s genetic code. This meant that if it wasn’t added in just the right way, it at best wasn’t going to work and at worst completely mess up another area of DNA. Think of it like your car having bad brake pads and instead of removing the old ones and replacing them you just added another set. So, if the new set isn’t added in just the right spot, the brakes still aren’t going to work correctly, if at all.
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, or CRISPR for short, is an improvement as we can now remove the segment of DNA we don’t want and replace it with a new segment of DNA we do want. In essence, it is a more targeted system that should greatly improve scientists’ ability to modify an organism’s DNA. Do keep in mind that CRISPR is not a perfect system, just an improved one. There is still the issue of getting the DNA inside the right cells, and that the DNA is added in the correct location for it to work properly.
When and Where to Edit
It’s not just the ability to change the DNA of the cell that matters, but can you change the DNA in the cell that matters. Take for example Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the lungs to fill up with thick sticky mucus. Fixing the DNA in the muscle cells of a person afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis won’t fix the problem. Additionally, fixing the DNA in a full-grown adult won’t always completely fix the problem. Take for example dextrocardia, where the heart is on the wrong side of the body; while it usually does not cause major problems for an afflicted individual, fixing his DNA won’t cause his heart to return to the correct side.
This means we can break gene therapy into two types, somatic and germ line. Somatic gene therapy changes the DNA in the non-reproductive cells of the body, and the changes cannot be passed on. Germ line therapy changes the DNA in the reproductive cells of the body, and these changes can be passed on. Gundam Seed uses the latter when creating the Coordinators.
What is the measure of a beneficial gene?
Currently modern medical science is working towards being able to cure genetic diseases and not the creation of designer babies like Coordinators. The Coordinators of Gundam seed are shown to be mentally and physically superior than your average person. Non-genetically modified individuals, known as Naturals, do best Coordinators during the series, and this usually is due to talent, training, and experience. The easiest way to look at a Coordinator is to think of a person having the intellect of someone like Steven Hawkings, the speed of Usain Bolt, the strength of Paul Anderson, and the looks of Fabio, along with a super-strong immune system. They get the best of everything with none of the downsides. A non-modified individual might be able to match or beat you in one area, but not the others.
The bigger question that comes up when you begin thinking about genetic modification, beyond curing a genetic disease, is what makes a particular gene beneficial and what downsides come along with that particular gene? The classic example would be extremely high IQ and mental illness. There is some correlation between high IQ and mental illness; yes, neither of these are completely genetic, but I still think it works as an example. By giving the child high IQ you would be raising the risk of mental illness. The obvious question is, well, can’t we just play with the genes again and remove the risk of mental illness? Unfortunately, a person’s genes are not Legos and cannot be mixed and matched.
Genes influence each other, and making one particular trait better may make another one worse. A study on Olympic level cross-country skiers in Norway discovered that there were several genes that improved the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, clearly a benefit. However, this same gene also increased the risk for cardiovascular disease later in life.
Additionally, sometimes having a so-called bad gene can turn out to have a beneficial effect. An example of this would be sickle cell anemia, a recessive genetic condition (meaning you have to have 2 copies of the gene) where the body makes abnormal hemoglobin changing the shape of the red blood cell. This causes a host of issues and only about 50% of afflicted individuals live past 50 years old. Obviously, you do not want to have sickle cell anemia; however, the silver lining is that you have an increased resistance to malaria. If you are a carrier (meaning you have 1 copy of the gene), and have sickle cell trait, things are a bit different. You only experience the negative effects of the gene during very stressful and extreme situations, and you still have the resistance to malaria.
The idea of genetic modification to improve your child in the vein of the Coordinators is highly probable at this point, but not confirmed, as scientists have yet to accomplish this feat. The only thing to consider is that it is probably impossible to make a person who is genetically gifted in all areas, given how genes tend to interact with each other.
Nature VS. Nurture
Some of you might be thinking, this genetics stuff is all well and good, but the environment can and does have a large impact on a person’s development. You would be exactly right. The environment can and does have a large impact on people. Science might be able to give you the best most gifted metabolism in the world, but if you spend your days sitting on your couch eating Khuushur (Mongolian meat pies) and playing video games all day, you are going to gain weight. Gundam Seed actually brings this up to a small degree with Kira Yamato, the so called ultimate Coordinator, who was born using an artificial womb to completely control the fetal environment. There are examples of the fetal environment affecting the developing baby, like the mother smoking and/ or drinking during the pregnancy. In the case of smoking the baby is born smaller than usual and can be premature. As for alcohol, it leads to a form of mental retardation known as fetal alcohol syndrome.
There is no mention of environmental effects after birth, except for mentioning that Coordinators go through school much faster than Naturals. Whether this is a result of their genetic gifts or an effort to improve their intelligence is left up for debate. A second mention comes during Gundam Seed Destiny where the big bad Gilbert Durandal mentions to Athrun at how good Kira could be as a soldier and this can be taken two ways. One, Kira would make a great soldier for him because Kira is one of the best pilots in the world, if not the best. Two, Kira is a great pilot, but he could be even better if he was properly trained and conditioned. Either way, yes, nurture matters and Gundam Seed does drop the ball a bit here.
Coordinators as a new species
Patrick Zala, one of the two big bads from the first season, tries to make the point that Coordinators are the future of humanity and a brand-new species. Laxus Clyne does bring up the point that they are not a new species, but it is a bit of a blink and you miss it kind of thing. The reason Coordinators are not a new species is pretty obvious.
1st generation Coordinator- Normal parents decide to have a genetically modified child who will be born as a Coordinator.
2nd generation Coordinator- Coordinator parents have a child and their enhancements are passed onto their child.
3rd generation Coordinator- It’s the same as the 2nd except that they begin to have trouble having children.
4th generation Coordinator- Same as the third, except that the reproductive issues increase.
Half Coordinator– while these are not mentioned in the main storyline, they do appear in the side stories, for example, Xist Elwes from Gundam Seed Astray.
So, no Coordinators, are not a new species as they can still have kids with augmented individuals, and I think we can assume that these half Coordinators will be able to have kids with other coordinators or augmented individuals. There is one last thing I want to discuss and that is how Gundam Seed played it straight with the Coordinators. What I mean is that in the process of creating these genetically gifted individuals, the scientists done goofed and made it harder for the Coordinators to reproduce. This is something I mentioned earlier, where enhancing one trait could potentially damage another.
Can we create a genetically superior breed of human? The answer to that is possibly. The science says that it is potentially possible, but it will have a number of drawbacks as previously discussed. However, the bigger question is not whether we can or can’t, but whether we should.