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Gene Genie

Rewarding new doc explains the intricacies of the genetic tools that are ready to reshape the world.

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The documentary Human Nature, scientific as it is, may not break box office records but it’s far and away the most intelligent, thought-provoking movie of the young year. Using imaginative graphics and a well-spoken parade of biologists, biochemists, bioethicists, genetic engineers, and starters of start-ups, director and co-writer (with Regina Sobel) Adam Bolt explains the whys and wherefores of the family of DNA sequences called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a powerful gene-editing tool that, among other functions, can give bacteria immunity from viruses. Imagine a cure for breast cancer, sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s, Hemophilia A, and other deadly afflictions. “Most people don’t wake up in the morning and think about how bacteria defend themselves against viruses,” says UC Berkeley molecular and cell biologist Fyodor Urnov. “It’s not on the front-and-center of their agenda. But it should be.” CRISPR, Cas 9 (a programmable protein with gene-targeting and genome-editing applications), and RNA (ribonucleic acid, one of the essential molecules for all known life) are certainly on the mind of UCB biochemist Jennifer Doudna. “RNA is a tool that allows us to change our relationship to nature, to human evolution,” she said. “It’s that profound.” Sickle cell patient David Sanchez is equally appreciative, although he realizes that the technology has probably arrived too late for him. The potential social problems of the new technologies are just as profound. Bolt and Sobel’s doc does not overlook the moral qualms around the subjects of sequencing human genomes, “designer babies,” and the two perennial bugaboos associated with such miracle technologies: the unavoidable commercial and military applications. Dominating the natural world is a strategy to be approached with caution. Human Nature gets us up to speed with the future in a thoughtful, un-dumbed-down way. See it and be amazed.

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