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Human Nature review – quiet revolution that began in a yoghurt pot | Film


This documentary from Adam Bolt and Regina Sobel is about a revolution that has been quietly taking place in molecular biology and medicine: a revolution compared here to the invention of the internet but gaining a fraction of the attention. (The more pertinent comparison may be with nuclear energy.) It is the innovation of gene editing and CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a crucial pattern of DNA sequences in micro-organisms that allows them to resist viral infection by replicating a section of the virus’s DNA and using it as a kind of “wanted” poster to fight off the invader.

This mechanism can be used to cut, copy and replace pieces of DNA – to “edit” DNA, like changing a piece of written text – and the technology has enormous implications for treating genetic diseases. Incredibly, it appears to have been developed first not by academic researchers or biotech geniuses, but a yoghurt and cheese manufacturer. Philippe Horvath and Rodolphe Barrangou of the food firm Danisco developed CRISPR while figuring out how to make their product less susceptible to bacteria.

Now CRISPR is opening up exciting new avenues of medical thinking but at the same time reopening the debate on eugenics and the ethical implications of altering DNA, particularly the “germline” DNA that theoretically modifies your children’s genetic makeup. The film is at its most intriguing in its earlier half, when it simply takes you through the growing excitement within the scientific community as the reality of CRISPR emerges.

Once we get to the later sections debating the various qualms, with archive clips of Aldous Huxley discussing his novel Brave New World and of Jeff Goldblum in the movie Jurassic Park, the film becomes less interesting. The technology is excitingly new, but the debate isn’t. Rightly or wrongly, this film ends on a note dismissing worries as overblown moral panic.

The one thing this movie doesn’t do is produce the pro-CRISPR Shakespeare quotation – Polixenes from The Winter’s Tale, defending the practice of crossbreeding flowers to create blooms like carnations: “this is an art / Which does mend nature, change it rather, but / The art itself is nature.”

Human Nature is released in the UK on 6 December.

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