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Review: Human Nature

16 December 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1028

Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, is a documentary aimed at educating a wide audience about genome editing and the discovery and possible uses of CRISPR. It aims to make the global debate more accessible by presenting the benefits and difficulties of possible applications of CRISPR in various fields, including medicine, research and healthcare.

The harnessing of CRISPR for genome editing was achieved in 2012 by biochemists Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Professor Jennifer Doudna, both interviewed in the documentary, and has revolutionised the way in which research has been conducted in the past few years, opening an array of new possibilities in the future of science.

The documentary was divided into clear and concise sections, with the first half focusing on the history of genetics and the discovery and science behind CRISPR, and the second half discussing the ethical and social questions raised by the technology.

The scientific explanations of the discovery and mechanisms of CRISPR were fantastically clear and would be comprehensible to anyone interested in learning more about the technology.

CRISPR is a natural bacterial defence mechanism against viruses. Through a series of interviews, leading researchers in the field described how bacteria use CRISPR as a 'wanted poster' searching for and destroying invading viruses.

Simplified but thorough explanations were made with the help of short animations demonstrating the molecular changes taking place when CRISPR is used to edit areas of genes or single letters of the DNA code. However, the documentary assumes a base level knowledge of DNA and genetics. A quick explanation of some key ideas would have been beneficial prior to explaining the mechanics of CRISPR.

There also needed to be some clearer distinction earlier in the documentary between permanent, heritable genetic modifications made in embryos, sperm, or egg (known as germline changes) and non-permanent and non-heritable changes made in specialised cells (known as somatic changes), as CRISPR could be used for either.

Furthermore, CRISPR was presented as a safe and risk-free technology, suggesting that only ethical considerations prevent the technique from being more broadly used in humans, rather than a combination of law, ethics and scientific limitations. This could well be to 'future-proof' the discussion in the documentary to ensure that it remains relevant if CRISPR does become safe enough.

The documentary demonstrated the wide-ranging uses of CRISPR in biochemical research for new medicines, xenotransplantation for organ donation, and in the food industry for the development of cultures for the dairy industry. Despite being very US-centric, it did a good job of presenting different laboratories with varied and interesting goals in their use of CRISPR.

The ethical section felt more disjointed than the scientific background. The lack of direction may have been intentional, as the directors of the film said in a short introduction before the premiere that they wanted the documentary to remain neutral and simply raise the different issues that CRISPR may present.

Many of the issues raised around CRISPR are comparable to those discussed in the wake of assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF or Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis. It is possible that for this reason, ideas such as 'playing god', eugenics and the 'slippery slope' were not discussed in great depth, with some controversial views presented but not explored.

The documentary also criticised the obsession of media and news outlets with the idea of 'designing' our children yet fell just short of a critical appraisal of this idea by showing, for example, how this would be scientifically impossible at present.

The wide range of experts taking part in the documentary all made their points clearly, with particularly interesting contributions from Professor Alta Charo at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Professor Fyodor Urnov at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Innovative Genomics Institute.

In addition, recurring interviews with a young patient called David, who was undergoing continuous invasive treatments for sickle-cell anemia, added human context to the documentary, demonstrating who this technology might be able to help.

Poignantly, when they asked David whether he wished that doctors had used CRISPR on him as a child he said that he didn't, as this would have prevented him from becoming who he is today.

Some important ethical questions were not discussed in sufficient depth, such as concerns around autonomy and risk when using this technology in embryos, and the first ever use of CRISPR in human embryos by Dr Jiankui He, (see BioNews 977) which only received a small mention before the credits. 

The cinematography and music in the documentary were breath-taking. The sweeping shots of the salt fields of Spain and the deserts of North America were reminiscent of David Attenborough's nature documentaries.

Despite some ethical and social issues being underdeveloped, the combination of this imagery and clearly-visualised scientific explanations of CRISPR makes the film an accessible and appealing introduction to this groundbreaking technology and its possible uses.

22 March 2021 - by Eleanor Taylor 
As part of the 'Spotlight on….' series, the MIT Technology Review recently focused their attention on the genome editing 'supertool' CRISPR...
9 December 2019 - by Dr Patrick Foong 
It's just over a year since Dr He Jiankui's controversial announcement that he had created the world's first genome-edited babies...
9 December 2019 - by Jakki Magowan 
The MIT Technology Review has released excerpts of unpublished research from Dr He Jiankui's manuscript that ignored ethical and scientific norms when creating the world's first gene-edited twins...
2 December 2019 - by Isobel Steer 
When we think of designer babies, we may think of genome-edited babies with their DNA cut and spliced, perhaps using CRISPR...
19 August 2019 - by Rachel Siden 
California has passed the first-ever bill regulating genome editing technology that targets do-it-yourself CRISPR kits...
12 August 2019 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
China has approved a national research ethics committee to advise its government, following the 'CRISPR-babies' scandal last year...
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