Producers: Adam Bolt, Meredith DeSalazar and Sarah Goodwin Director: Adam Bolt Screenplay: Adam Bolt and Regina Sobel Cast: David Sanchez, Alta Charo, Hank Greely, Fyodor Urnov, Feng Zhang, Dolorez Sanchez, Matt Porteus, Jennifer Doudna, Antonio Regalado, Jill Banfield, Francisco Mojica, Rodolphe Barrangou, George Daley, Luhan Yang, George Church, Steven Hsu, Kelsey McClelland, Palmer Weiss, Ethan Weiss, Ruthie Weiss, Ryan Phelan and Ian Hodder Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
One might not think that a documentary about “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”—or CRISPR—would be engrossing as well as educational, but Adam Bolt’s is. “Human Nature” also has particular relevance to our concerns about Covid-19, since an ability to manipulate the DNA sequences could theoretically be important in developing antiviral medical treatments.
That possibility is one of the threads of the film, which humanizes the abstruse topic by following the case of David Sanchez, a victim of sickle cell anemia, a disease for which a cure might be effected through genetic engineering, and referring to another, that of Ruthie Weiss, a girl whose albinism might have been “corrected” through such a procedure had it been available to her parents Palmer and Ethan before she was born.
Its major focus, however, is on explaining what CRISPR is, and investigating the possibilities that manipulating it scientifically could mean for genetic engineering—possibilities that raise profound ethical issues that make Ruthie’s parents doubt that “rectifying” her abnormality beforehand would necessarily have been a good thing, and even lead David to question whether living a “normal” life would have robbed him of the beneficial lessons his condition has taught him.
The film comprises six chapters, beginning with one describing the discovery of the structure of human DNA and introducing David and the impact that knowledge might someday have on his case. It proceeds in the next two installments to discuss the discovery of CRSPR within the DNA structure and the recognition by molecular biologists of its significance in enabling the DNA sequence to repel dangerous viruses, opening a possible route to gene editing. A flurry of scientists are introduced to explain, in terms a layman can understand (complete with animated graphs), the underlying principles, some exalting the opportunities such knowledge might bring in medicine and other fields, and some arguing that we should not try to edit the human genetic line, suggesting that doing so might have unpredictable, perhaps dire, consequences.
The last three chapters turn to ethical concerns raised by the DNA/CRISPR discoveries—or, as Bolt refers to it, the entry into a “brave new world” eloquently predicted by Aldous Huxley. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, is a prominent interviewee, having been involved in numerous panels considering the matter and recommending policies.
But the warnings that she and others raise about the dangers posed by genetic engineering and the search for ways of producing “designer babies” (a more modern variant of the discredited concepts behind the once-popular eugenics movement) and even resurrecting extinct species, “Jurassic Park” style, are rebuffed by researchers like Dr. Stephen Hsu, Michigan State University’s Vice President for Research and Grad Studies, and George Church, Professor of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School. The film also introduces the owners of a firm they called Genesis, which is engaged in experimenting with techniques using CRISPR that might permit the transplantation of organs from pigs to humans who need them to survive. (One of the animals, named Laika, also appears.)
The closing chapter is titled “Playing God,” which naturally recalls all those novels and films, from “The Modern Prometheus” on, that have been based on the idea of how dangerous it is for scientists to meddle in matters that should be left to nature.
With skillful contributions by cinematographer Derek Reich, editors Regina Sobel and Steve Tyler and composer Keegan DeWitt (as well as well-chosen but happily gentle reference not just to “Brave New World” and “Jurassic Park” but “Blade Runner” as well), “Human Nature” capably elucidates, in quite accessible terms, one of the most important threads in contemporary microbiology while explaining both the promise and the danger it poses.