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CRISPR is fueling a modern-day scientific revolution. ‘Human Nature’ documentary looks at its promise and potential perils.

An image from the new documentary “Human Nature,” which is about a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9.
An image from the new documentary “Human Nature,” which is about a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9. (Courtesy of Adam Bolt)

Should you be terrified or exhilarated at the prospect of a gene-editing tool fueling a modern-day scientific revolution? “Human Nature,” a new film on the technology, braids the tool’s promise and potential perils into a riveting double helix.

The Dan Rather-produced doc, which was directed by Adam Bolt, focuses on CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that “programs” an enzyme to seek and find a specific position on DNA, then cut the molecule at the preferred location. Scientists can then add, delete or edit the DNA.

“I can cut any gene I want,” says Jennifer Doudna, the biochemist who helped develop the technology, in the film. She seems barely able to contain her excitement.

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, offers a potentially mind-boggling number of applications: as a disease therapy, a way to wipe out pests and fight invasive species, make foods more nutritious or flavorful, or even create hybrid organisms.

It also comes with a slew of ethical concerns. Will CRISPR be used, as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggests in a 2017 clip, to create a supersoldier capable of killing without fear or pain? Are designer babies just around the corner?

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Even as they continue to innovate, Doudna and colleagues are haunted by these possibilities. You should be, too, the movie suggests.

But the documentary is nuanced and savvy enough to poke fun at our fears of new scientific discoveries and poke holes in the blind confidence that can fuel irresponsible use of new technologies.

One of the film’s strengths is its lack of narrator. Instead, it relies on scientists, patients and others to tell a complex story with ease. Insightful 3-D graphics that borrow from microscopic imagery make the science understandable without dumbing it down.

Despite fears about CRISPR, the movie may do a lot to increase faith in the technology’s potential by deftly illustrating what it does. (It’s worth a watch for that reason alone.)

The film’s strongest moments, however, are when its subjects’ eyes light up with the promise of innovation, cures and the sheer delight of discovery. For a movie about some of the most brilliant scientific revelations, “Human Nature” is incredibly, well, human.

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