Ever since a Chinese scientist claimed to have used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to manipulate genes in the embryos of twin girls in order to try to boost their resistance to HIV, a global controversy has erupted over the technology. The idea of gene editing goes back to at least the 1960s, and it’s the topic of the new documentary, “Human Nature,” which will premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin this month.
Renowned journalist Dan Rather, one of the film’s executive producers, says gene editing is one of the most important scientific and political tools of our time.
“This has the potential to be bigger and more important than the internet,” Rather says.
Although CRISPR is still in its infancy, some predict it will allow scientists to alter traits in children such as height, eye color and even intelligence. Rather says the potential for improving public health is immense, but so are the potential risks.
“In the wrong hands, it doesn’t take much imagination to see where it could go,” Rather says. “It could go in the direction of eugenics.”
In the months since the announcement of He Jiankui’s alleged manipulation of the twins’ genes, a debate has raged over regulation of the technology. Some have argued for banning the practice entirely while others prefer no restrictions in the hope of perfecting the process.
Rather says these conversations are vital, and they must move beyond the political and scientific elite.
“We need to have this conversation now, and my concern is scientists are having this conversation but what we need is the public at large,” Rather says. “Rank-and-file people, particularly in a democratic society such as ours, have to understand what is happening here at the beginning. We’re still at the first edges of this, but it’s moving quickly.”
He also stresses the need for American scientists to collaborate with those abroad when it comes to gene-editing technology.
“If we dial back, we’ll be quickly overtaken by people in China, Iran, all over the world,” Rather says. “We’re talking about a world danger in the same way that we had to have a global discussion about what to do with the splitting of the atom and first atomic bomb.”
Rather, who has covered events ranging from President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Watergate, says this is one of the most important issues he’s ever worked on.
“Seldom if ever have I been onto a story that has an arc that matters as much as this story,” Rather says. “We can’t put this off.”
Written by Sol Chase.