Human Nature review – an elegant, delicate, and beautifully structured documentary Custom Fitted Genes

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Summary

Human Nature is an elegant, delicate, and beautiful documentary film that couldn’t be more relevant in our new normal because now, more than ever, we have no idea what the future holds — even though the filmmakers here shine a spotlight on the ones who are trying to change that.

Early in the new documentary film Human Nature, Hank Greely, a Bioethicist from Stanford University, said, “The idea of gene therapy is simple — add in a copy of the gene that works, add the protein that works, and they won’t be sick anymore. But the devil, as often is the case, is in the details.” It’s an interesting statement which frames the film perfectly going forward in a scientific documentary that is as engaging and accessible for mainstream audiences as any I’ve ever seen.

Adam Bolt’s doc is about the breakthrough that was stumbled upon by Francisco Mojica (the scientist who the film says discovered CRISPR and DNA editing, but a simple google search debates if Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna did, however) what could have been a bad batch of Activia (apparently the yogurt people claim to know about this for years) called CRISPR — Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The acronym comes from the main characteristics. It’s basically a pattern, short fragments of DNA repeated many times over. These peculiar sequences were present in many micro-organisms. Many believe, while the science is relatively young and around for 20 years, this can cure diseases, reshaping the human race, and offer “designer children” by controlling basic building blocks of human life.

What makes Human Nature fascinating is that it essentially explains, with fine detail and while being plain-spoken, the very human element of interviewing children and parents of those children affected by diseases, such as Hepatitis. They also do an engaging job of showing how viruses attack the body. For instance, in between each CRISPR is a “spacer” with a completely different sequence. Apply that to viruses that will destroy cells, by taking over the host who will create a new spacer sequence infected by the bacteria, causing the body to build up those antibodies and become immune — like the flu or in the severe cases, the lucky ones who survive COVID-19. Essentially, bacteria help us fend off viruses by acquiring the spacer from the virus. The result is scientists calling CRISPR an adaptive immune system.

20 years ago, the thought of human-engineering was shot down by our political leaders, but there has been so much advancement in the field in a short time, there is a new ethically defensible thought process. The argument now being, “Draw an ethical line wherever you want but don’t do it in front of my disease.”

Which brings us to the point of can the CRISPR be programmed or manipulated by a scientist? Basically, can we use CRISPR to change one’s DNA? The problem being, as a study on children in France called the Miracle trial, was halted because the placement of the gene was random, and it caused cancer (per the academic interviewed, the children had been terminal and “were going to die”).

The science is more “advanced” and now, in theory, they want to alter the code on DNA by making a “cut”. Human Nature explains it in layman’s terms like taking your cursor in Microsoft Word, tapping that cursor on a paragraph, allowing you to add a line or delete one. The same thing applies here, taking a device that can slice part of the DNA while adding a new line of code. The issue is they didn’t have that tool until recently. CRISPR creates a protein called CAS9 that cuts DNA and acts as a gatekeeper that finds invader viral sequences to grab and destroy those sequences.

Can you create X-Men? Maybe. CRISPR to modify human embryos knocked out the CCR5 receptor which means you can’t be infected by HIV. A story of a 14-ear old child in India that felt no pain and would stick knives into his body for money — could we take a cut out of that gene to prevent cancer patients from living through a terrible, slow death? There are also physicians who have started their own fertility companies, not to make super babies, but designer ones. All these changes come with risks that will not be intended — which are the basis of any sci-fi horror film.

These are all fascinating debates of ethical dilemmas between religion, science, and the people who have the money or power to make it happen. Bolt stacks up a list of scientists, academics, and journalists who are all able to communicate what this means to the outlook on life with clever metaphors and analogies that are enlightening and educational. The graphics used to explain the processes behind the science are engaging, and left me wondering how realistic they are — until the filmmakers show a microscopic video of the CRISPR adaptive immune system at work that leaves you awestruck.

Human Nature premiered at SXSW over a year ago and may prove to be actually ahead of its time or just, maybe, damn timely. Adam Bolt and Regina Sobel’s film is entertaining without being stodgy, engaging while never being unappealing, and educates the viewer when it could resort to outright patronization. It’s an elegant, delicate, and beautiful film that couldn’t be more relevant since we have no idea what the future holds at the current moment.


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M.N. Miller

M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.

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