The way our genes work can be influenced by our environment; this is called epigenetics. However, what if we could directly alter our genes? New technologies keep developing and step-by-step a sci-fi world in which we alter our own DNA becomes more realistic. Here, you’re probably thinking about ethical concerns, influence on society and the extremes. Unnatural selection is a Netflix series in the form of a documentary that shows some of the craziest developments in the field of bioengineering.
One of the main characters in the series is a biohacker who experiments with his own body. I think this is beyond crazy; he is very acquainted with bioengineering, but he wants to bring DIY-kits for genetic editing on the market (yes, for everyone). Keep in mind that the changes to your genetics could be even more than just influencing your life, they could be passed on to your offspring.
Without spoiling the series, some of the other parts of the documentary are about an American dog-breeder who tries to alter the DNA of his dogs to give them very odd characteristics. Another part is about using gene editing to stabilize nature, for example by taking out invasive animals or animal plagues. Make a guess which company invests heavily into research in this area? It’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense. They are responsible for the development of innovative technologies to be used by the military. And yet another part is about using gene editing to treat (rare) diseases.
Picture of the dog breeder at work in his home-lab.
Central to this documentary is the usage of the new technique CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, an important bacterial defense mechanism against viruses. CRISPR’s are short parts of our DNA, these short parts are repeated frequently. The power of this technique comes from pairing this with an enzyme called Cas9 which allows us to cut out a specific part of DNA and then replace it with another part we attach. This new part need not come from DNA of the same species; for example, you can inject DNA from a jellyfish into a plant, bacteria or human. Using this combination, we can insert a change in many of these short parts of the DNA, causing differences in expression. Using this technique, the possibilities are huge. Think of curing rare diseases related to these short DNA parts, to manipulating the yeast in beer to make it glow-in-the-dark.
All in all, I think this series shows some of the most ridiculous, concerning, perhaps promising but surely impactful applications of gene modification. Ready to be amazed? Then I recommend you check out the series on Netflix!
Author: Kobus Lampe