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Documentary Review: The Gene Revolution (BBC Storyville)

24 February 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1036

Storyville, the BBC4 series showcasing international documentaries, has recently aired a feature length piece entitled 'The Gene Revolution: Changing Human Nature'. 

The title is something of a statement, which will doubtless pique your interest as a hereditarily-minded BioNews reader. A towering hour and thirty minutes in length, it is a wide-ranging dive into genetics, bioethics and CRISPR. Is it worth the time investment? Read on and decide if it's for you in five minutes instead. 

The format of the film is a medley of straight-to-camera, largely unprompted interviews, stock footage, and explanatory graphics - which I will return to. It is subdivided into six chapters, featuring titillating titles such as 'Needle in a Haystack' and 'Playing God'. 

It opens with an interview with a captivating, erudite teenager who has sickle-cell anaemia - an emotive start for a documentary largely about whether we can or indeed should use modern biotechnology to address disease, and immediately hints at the tone of the film at hand. 

After this, initial chapters steer away from ethics and impact and focus on the technical, charting the rise of genome editing. This is an engaging history, and interesting titbits of information abound. The interviewee list reads like a venerable who's-who of leading biotechnologists, clinicians and bioethicists, particularly those involved in the discovery of CRISPR. 

The interview time with key figures such as Jennifer Doudna and George Church alone makes this documentary worth watching. Although I thought I knew most of what there is to know about genome-editing, I didn't know, for example, about the key role the humble breakfast yogurt played in its development. If you didn't either, I'd suggest watching the first few parts at least. 

The documentary follows a broadly chronological but somewhat meandering structure. If I were to level some criticism at the filmmaking, it would be that the subject matter is possibly too complex and too broad, and the scope too great. Nonetheless, I admire the attempt to be comprehensive. 

Each chapter could almost be a programme in itself, and it is easy by the end of the film to lose sight of where it began. To nit-pick further, the music used tends towards the overdramatic, which may be off-putting to some.  

The graphic explanations, on the other hand, are very well done and clearly show how various genetic processes work, although I am surprised by their complexity, which may be impenetrable to those without a biology background. Nonetheless, it is good to see animations that accurately reflect the complexity of the biological processes underlying genome editing available for public consumption.

Later chapters shift the focus to the ethical debate surrounding genome editing and its applications, with a broad range of opinions from a considerable array of yet more minds in the field, as well as patients and parents. The debate is stimulating, informative, and reasonably balanced. We are even treated to Vladimir Putin's view on genome editing, although sadly not in an interview. There is also a considerable focus on the potential for genome editing's use in enhancement rather than treatment, which may irritate some. 

At this point I must raise a specific criticism. While the interview format is enlightening, it also highlights some of the flawed, distinctly human aspects of the minds in modern science, particularly with regard to the spectre that is eugenics. An interview with Stephen Hsu, CEO of Genomic Prediction, stands out. Glib, offensive comments are made about how eliminating Down's syndrome would be a net positive for society, increasing average intelligence and making society 'run a little bit more efficiently'. 

This imbalance could itself be viewed as a downside of this format, which allows for scientists to explain themselves with no counter-interview so that their comments remain unchallenged. 

Overall, I appreciate the filmmakers' decision not to whitewash, even if I disagree deeply with the statements made. To me, this is the sign of a documentary worth watching. These are the views that people hold, and we should be glad that they are open about them. 

Towards the end, we even have a fleeting insight from a plant biologist – probably the industry most poised and ready to deploy genome editing on a broad scale, but one often overshadowed by wilder applications, like George Church's insane but immensely fascinating yearning to revive the woolly mammoth – which is, of course, also featured.

If genome editing is going to have an impact on society at large, I suspect it will be in these fields, not the clinic, and it is nice to see this acknowledged. Full disclosure however: I am a plant biologist.

To sum up, despite thinking I already knew all there was to know on the topic, I was captivated, intrigued and occasionally challenged by this documentary. I consider it excellent viewing for any with even a superficial interest in the field. 

At the end of the documentary, we return to the teenager from the start. Would he use genome editing to cure sickle-cell anaemia? Watch this film, and find out what a person who directly stands to benefit thinks.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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