Film-makers Joe Egender and Leeor Kaufman talk about their revealing four-part series about major advances in genetics

Today, we are learning the language in which God created life, said then-president Bill Clinton, alongside the British prime minister, Tony Blair, in 2000. In the grainy archival clip, scientists and dignitaries had just mapped out the human genome, dissecting the complex science of biological being to code sequences of A, C, G and T in a style similar to binary computer code. But almost 20 years later, science has surpassed this once-unimaginable feat with the discovery of technology which can alter that genetic code. This zeitgeist-y innovation is the subject of a new Netflix series, Unnatural Selection, from film-makers Joe Egender and Leeor Kaufman, and explores the various forms of genetic engineering, as well as the societal and environmental implications of its research and use.

The four-part docuseries delves into the burgeoning field of gene technology, made possible by the aforementioned human genome project and the discovery of the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats or Crispr. Co-discovered by Dr Jennifer Doudna, the gene serves a bit like a molecular scalpel, she says, essentially removing and replacing gene material in a DNA strand. The technology makes it possible to modify genetics, giving it near unlimited biological potential, or as Salk Institute developmental biologist Professor Juan Izpuisua Belmonte puts it, rewriting the book of life.

It may all sound like science fiction but, as film-maker Joe Egender discovered, the future is, in fact, now. I come from the fiction world and I was doing some research to create a science fiction script, actually, Egender tells the Guardian. During research, he ran across an article about Crispr and was stunned by the science. I couldnt believe it, that we could actually edit the essence of life, DNA. Later, over a dinner conversation, he spoke to Leeor Kaufman, who convinced him the material would make a good documentary, if, and only if, there were advancements being made. They found an entire world teeming to express their feelings on the avant-garde technology. This is the beginning of a new revolution and, fortunately, we were making these calls right when these pioneers were just getting going, said Egender. The moment we started talking to people, we understood how there were so many different things that altering DNA can affect, whether its medicine or the environment or obviously designing animals, plants and humans, said Kaufman.

For Egender and Kaufman, the series had to tell the broader, more intricate story of genetic engineering, a story filled with great risk, benefits, consequences, emotions, sentiments and future, to better illuminate the field and further the discussion on the technology. Were not just talking about science, these are actual things that are happening and the stories are very complex and ongoing, stated Kaufman.

For example, many are depending on gene therapy treatment to change and possibly save lives. But, the series shows, the treatments are expensive, with some emerging drugs costing over $500,000, and patients are often at the mercy of startup genetic therapy companies who choose to weigh the meaning of the treatment versus the cost for the patient, leaving many to fight their insurance companies for the cost of treatment.

One episode shows the uses for the technology in a changing climate. Due to the climate crisis, New Zealand is suffering a boom in rodents, invasive species which threaten the native bird population. With genetic engineering, Dr Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer profiled in the series, hopes to foster a process called gene drive in rodents, a technology designed to transmit a particular suite of genes throughout a population through breeding. While it would effectively solve the problem, it also raises fears among New Zealanders of eugenics and ecological collapse.

A still from Unnatural Selection. Photograph: Netflix

They are not alone in their worry. The series is haunted by feelings of ambivalence from the scientists who are cautious about tipping the scales towards a possible dystopian future. Even Dr Doudna, the scientist who co-discovered the Crispr gene sequence, regularly expresses caution about gene engineering. No longer worried whether the technology will work, the scientists are concerned it might be used against people and push the world toward doom. Kaufman described their caution: These people are already living tomorrows dilemmas, tomorrows ethics, tomorrows financial world in a way and we can learn about tomorrow from them.

Dr Esvelt pioneered the gene drive technique and is hopeful it can partially temper the effects of climate change. But even he remarks, The prospect of a wave of genetically modified anything sweeping generation after generation, geographically expanding into city, country, across continents, is utterly terrifying.

A still from Unnatural Selection. Photograph: Netflix

Although he decides to explore the unknown, despite his ambivalence, others are not so optimistic about the use and development of technology. In the series, environmentalist Jim Thomas describes the potential magnitude of the technology: To me, its the most high-leverage technology Ive seen after maybe nuclear power. Politically, the technology raises several eyebrows. Activist Dana Perls poses the question: Genetic engineering brings up the issue of control. Who is profiting? Who is controlling the technology? Agro-business companies, chemical companies, mega-companies are interested because it allows them to control nature.

Egender acknowledged the fear is valid but opts to consider it from another angle. There may be reasons to fear the technology. There may be reasons to champion the technology. But I think what is certain is that, as a society, we need to better understand the technology and start discussing it so that we collectively can make some of these decisions, rather than leaving it up to only the people in the know, only the people in the lab, only the people with the power. Kaufman agreed: A lot of people when they hear about it for the first time, a lot of the reactions are fear. He continued: The best thing we can do as a society is not to fear it, but to address it and then understand what specifically we think, where specifically we shouldnt go and where we actually should or could because it can make a kid see or it can make people in Burkina Faso not suffer from a horrible disease that in other places people are not suffering from

Unnatural Selection demonstrates the worry of many, and the hope of others, threaded into a huge tapestry of possibility of a more perfect future. While so many things may not come to pass, one thing, however, is clear. We know very well from human history were not going to put this back in the bottle. The technology is there. Its going to be used, says Kaufman. While he doubts the series will change the minds of the public about genetic engineering, but hopes it will educate some about both the benefits and risks of genetic engineering. We dont expect anyone to decide by a show on Netflix. We expect people to learn from a show on Netflix.

  • Unnatural Selection is available on Netflix from 18 October



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