Unnatural Selection: the eye-opening Netflix docuseries on gene editing

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 couldn’t 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 it’s 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. “We’re 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
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 tomorrow’s dilemmas, tomorrow’s ethics, tomorrow’s 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
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, it’s the most high-leverage technology I’ve 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 shouldn’t 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 we’re not going to put this back in the bottle. The technology is there. It’s 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 don’t 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


Dream McClinton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How to Fix a Drug Scandal: behind a staggering Netflix crime docuseries
In a four-part series, Erin Lee Carr follows the ripple effects of two state chemists whose faulty drug tests left more than 20,000 defendants in legal limbo

Adrian Horton

01, Apr, 2020 @3:43 PM

Article image
Fear City: Netflix docuseries recounts a time when the mob ruled New York
Fear City: New York vs The Mafia recalls, from the perspective of law enforcement, how the mob was dismantled in the 1980s

Adrian Horton

22, Jul, 2020 @2:08 PM

Article image
‘The point is ambition’: are we ready to follow Netflix into space?
The ambitious new look at SpaceX’s first all-civilian flight, the streaming platform’s first real-time docuseries, takes reality television to space

Adrian Horton

07, Sep, 2021 @5:19 AM

Article image
Netflix’s Bubba Wallace docuseries ends up losing the race
The Nascar driver’s tumultuous time at the top is a fascinating story but a muddled and pandering series doesn’t do him justice

Andrew Lawrence

24, Feb, 2022 @7:06 AM

Article image
'It can be hard to keep hope': behind a shocking immigration docuseries
The film-makers behind Netflix’s Immigration Nation talk about the difficulties they faced following Ice, an agency that intimidated them even after production ended

Charles Bramesco

04, Aug, 2020 @7:25 AM

Article image
'We're all part of the story': behind Will Smith's 14th amendment docuseries
An ambitious and star-studded new Netflix series looks at the importance and legacy of an amendment that calls for equality and freedom

Lisa Wong Macabasco

23, Feb, 2021 @7:37 AM

Article image
‘It’s how we know who we are’: behind a docuseries on African American food
In Netflix’s High on the Hog, an often misunderstood or untold history of Black food is investigated with the help of culinary historian Dr Jessica Harris

Dream McClinton

25, May, 2021 @6:58 AM

Article image
Netflix releases first trailer for Tiger King 2
The sequel to the outrageous docuseries, which became a runaway hit last year, promises more stunning revelations about US big cat owners

Adrian Horton

27, Oct, 2021 @4:03 PM

Article image
Netflix is bringing back Making a Murderer for new episodes
The controversial series will return with the same directors, to track Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey as their legal teams fight to overturn their convictions

Nigel M Smith

19, Jul, 2016 @5:26 PM

Article image
The Innocence Files: a shocking Netflix series on wrongful convictions
A new docuseries uses individual cases of false convictions to reveal a terrifyingly unreliable criminal justice system.

Adrian Horton

15, Apr, 2020 @2:53 PM