Film Review: HUMAN NATURE (USA 2019) ***1/2

Human Nature Poster
The biggest tech revolution of the 21st Century isn’t digital, it’s biological. A breakthrough called CRISPR has given us unprecedented control over the basic building blocks of life. It … See full summary »


Adam Bolt

This documentary  on the advancements of DNA technology begins with a speech by an expert on the topic at the Californian Institute of Technology waning that advancements of DNA could lead to either disaster or positive changes.   The ad for the film claims it to be the biggest tech revolution of the 21st Century and it isn’t digital, it’s biological. 

The film goes on to tell the story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century – CRISPR, a genome engineering tool that allows to change certain parts of the DNA, and provides a provocative exploration of the potential applications and limitations of this tool.  

Directed by Emmy Award winner Adam Bolt, HUMAN NATURE has successfully premiered at SXSW Film Festival and was further featured as the official selection at multiple film festivals across the world, including Hot Docs. 

The film is told in Chapters.  Chapter 2 itself called CRISPR and Chapter 3 called ‘The Gene Machine’.

Director Bolt’s documentary has this simple aim – to tell the story.  But in order to do so, Bolt has to educate his audience on CRISPR and CAS9 (pronounced KAST 9).  What these are is explained (as described by Wikipedia) below;

CRISPR is a family of DNA sequences found within the genomes of prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria and archaea. These sequences are derived from DNA fragments of bacteriophages that have previously infected the prokaryote and are used to detect and destroy DNA from similar phages during subsequent infections.  Hence these sequences play a key role in the antiviral (i.e. anti-phage) defense system of prokaryotes.

Cas9 (or “CRISPR-associated protein 9”) is an enzyme that uses CRISPR sequences as a guide to recognize and cleave specific strands of DNA that are complementary to the CRISPR sequence. Cas9 enzymes together with CRISPR sequences form the basis of a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that can be used to edit genes within organisms. This editing process has a wide variety of applications including basic biological research, development of biotechnology products, and treatment of diseases.

It is not an easy task to understand the last 2 paragraphs or to understand what Bolt’s microbiologists in the film are explaining either.  But Bolt tries hard, credit to him, using everyday English  and animation to illustrate and simplify.  In the end, it is not really necessary to understand the dynamics but how it works.  Bolt also uses an application of it with sickle cell cancer to bring his story down to earth.

Bolt goes to the extreme of using the analogy of the manufacture of the car by the Ford Motor company with genome engineering, even intercutting the latter with cars coming off the auto assembly plant.

But the doc is not without its feel good moments.  In an inspirational segment, Chinese eGenetics engineers describe enthusiastically how they can use pig cells to do the equivalent of organ donors.  With feel good also comes the horror.  Bolt informs that with one gene, it could be made available to that people could for example, be altered to survive with only 4 hours of sleep or given more muscular strength.   The ethical question is whether human beings want to go there.

HUMAN NATURE is educational though at times tough to understand film, but also a provocative and study on an urgent subject that will change the course of the human race.