By Grant Jacobs 11/03/2019 1


Here’s a film trailer of the documentary Human Nature that looks at a future of gene editing[1]

The film is to be released soon in Australia and elsewhere. Here’s their blurb,

The biggest tech revolution of the 21st century isn’t digital, it’s biological. A breakthrough called CRISPR gives us unprecedented control over the basic building blocks of life. It opens the door to curing disease, reshaping the biosphere, and designing our own children. Human Nature is a provocative exploration of CRISPR’s far-reaching implications, through the eyes of the scientists who discovered it, the families it’s affecting, and the genetic engineers who are testing its limits. How will this new power change our relationship with nature? What will it mean for human evolution? To begin to answer these questions we must look back billions of years and peer into an uncertain future.

A star cast

The film features a star cast of scientists working on genome editing. Alongside them are experts representing law, bioethics, environmental and commercial interests. The listed cast includes Jill Banfield, David Baltimore, Rodolphe Barrangou, Alta Charo, George Church, Jennifer Doudna, Antonio Regalado, Fyodor Urnov, Luhan Yang, and Feng Zhang. (If I had a criticism, it’d be that the cast is very USA-oriented, but then it’s produced in the USA.)

George Church is the guy who says (0:53), “my lab has been accused of taking science fiction and making it science fact. I consider that very high praise”.[2] I had a chuckle at that. That’s so George Church. He’s a strong advocate of genome editing. Jennifer Doudna is the woman in the chair at 0:43. She’s also the co-author with Samuel Sternberg of a book for non-scientists about genome editing I can recommend, A Crack in Creation.

Genome editing has a very wide range of applications. The trailer mostly highlights one, germline editing, similar to what He Jiankui did in China. That’s different to gene therapy, treating a genetic disorder by tweaking the genes in the organ involved. There children of those treated do not carry the gene edits. Only the patient does. Other applications include biosynthesis, gene drives, eliminating undesirable traits (e.g. preventing wilding in pines in NZ),

It’ll be interesting to read the reviews. Review site Rotten Tomatoes already has a blank page set up. Drop by there once it’s out and check out what reviewers think of it.

Loose thoughts

The trailer briefly mentions autism. Autism is a very complex condition involving hundreds of genes. It’s unlikely to be a target for genome editing for a long time to come.

There are examples of a few patients with (very) rare diseases being treated using genome editing. One key to these projects is that for rare diseases typically just one gene has gone rogue, with devastating impact.[3]

The success of germline editing, in mammals at least, may hinge on details of how very early embryo develop. Several projects seem to be stumbling on this, and it may turn out to be a substantial roadblock. It’ll be interesting to see if the documentary tackles this.

Other articles on Code for life

Genome-edited babies – what’s the worry?

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

A gene drive in mice – but only for females

Strongest opponents of GM think they know best but actually know the least

Temperature-induced hearing loss

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

Footnotes

  1. Properly it’s genome editing. It’s editing genomes, not isolated single genes. You’ll see I’ve done a lead and switch. While it’s is easier to say ‘gene editing’ in public, I have to admit I find it a bit annoying. It’s a little like people saying ‘disease genes’ when they mean alleles (variants of a gene).
  2. It’s good they’ve closed captioned it: the “my lab” bit was unintelligible to me even after replaying it a dozen times. (I have a hearing loss).
  3. I would like to write about these one day. Gene therapy is a feature of a writing project I’m trying (badly) to self-fund. I had hoped to work on a project bring some of this to the public, but realistically it needs funding. Any offers or suggestions welcome.
    I also have a small research connection to gene therapy. There are four main types of molecular tools to edit genomes. One are zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs). My PhD work was on how zinc finger proteins recognise DNA. Being able to design zinc finger protein to recognise a particular DNA sequence is a key to how ZFNs work.

About the featured image

A schematic of how TALEN genome editing works. Other genome editing tools include zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), meganucleases and CRISPR.

Source: Wikipedia. Artist credits: Ogletreerd. CC-ASA 4.0.


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