The world as we know it is changing. Huge strides have been made in the field of genetics and we now stand at the precipice of potentially changing our environment forever. And that's not an exaggeration – especially if you watch Unnatural Selection. The documentary series airs in four parts, each a little over an hour long. The theme of each is slightly different however the same players pop up in each.
So what is Unnatural Selection about? It starts with a brief look at the discovery of CRISPR – a family of DNA sequences found within the genomes organisms such as bacteria. So far so good. We then learn that CRISPR, when used alongside Cas9 enzymes, can be used to edit genes. The things that determine our eye colour, or memory, or physical strength. At it's basest level, this technology is apparently so easy to use that, with a little bit of knowledge, you can even have a go at home.
On one level this is an extraordinary, potentially life-saving development in gene therapy. If you can take a faulty gene and splice it with a modified but healthy gene you can, in theory, prevent or eradicate hereditary diseases. This is highlighted in the documentary which follows three people with three very different illnesses. Jackson is a young boy that suffers from a deteriorating eye condition that will ultimately render him blind. Nick is suffering from SMA (Spinal muscular atrophy) which has almost completely paralyzed him. And Tristan is suffering from HIV.
Potentially new gene therapies on the market can help, if not cure all of them. Make no mistake, this is an amazing thing. Not so amazing are the morally bankrupt pharmaceutical companies who are charging over a million dollars for the treatments. That's where the likes of Dr. Josiah Zayner and David Ishee come in. They believe that CRISPR technology should be made available to anybody who wants it. The more people who use it the greater the chance of coming up with cures for a few thousand dollars, rather than a few million. However admirable their perspective, there is also the potential for great harm. And that's the dilemma.
In fact, a number of moral questions are posed in Unnatural Selection. Designer babies, gene drives to alter the DNA of mosquitos or rats to wipe them out, or even the creation of superhumans at a genetic level are all possibilities. Both for and against are represented in the various arguments debated in the documentary. But when you discover that new gene therapy for SMA is has been FDA approved and is on sale for a price point of $2.1m it's difficult to not side with the biohackers.