JACKSON, Miss. – From his backyard in a wooden shed stocked with scientific equipment and tools, David Ishee spends hours at a time away from his full-time job – injecting carbon dioxide into old oil fields – to look for techniques to enhance the genetic makeup of dogs.
With his lights shining bright, his microscope on his lab desk and his hair pulled back in a ponytail, Ishee has spent the last decade breeding dogs after he, his wife and his two kids were nearly robbed in their Jackson home by two men wearing ski masks and carrying shotguns.
Ishee, 34, had his own shotgun, and the would-be robbers ran away. From that moment, however, he believed he needed a good dog at home to protect his family.
Ishee immediately thought back to his childhood and his neighbors' Neopolitan mastiff, the original war dog – big and terrifying, but great with a family.
Yet when Ishee looked at the mastiffs in today's environment, he said they were "garbage."
"They were super wrinkly, nonathletic and just could not do the job anymore," Ishee said. "I built a dog that is healthy, athletic, capable of running faster than a man, jumping higher than a man, all of the things that you need to do to be a good protector."
So he began breeding them with the hope of removing their genetic disorders.
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One of Ishee's dogs stopped home burglary as family slept
Through his study of genetics and understanding inheritance, Ishee feels that he has restored the true purpose of the mastiff: a war dog for protection.
"My dogs have stopped home invasions and saved people's lives," Ishee said.
Vincent Robertson, 49 of Coffeeville, would agree with Ishee's claim. Robertson purchased Triton – an American Bandogge mastiff – from Ishee on May 14, 2015, as a birthday present for himself.
"He was one of the best dogs I ever owned," Robertson said. "Their strength and speed, I mean, Triton was part of our family."
In August 2017, Robertson woke around 2:30 one morning to what he described as "the damnedest commotion and growling and everything getting tore up that you ever heard in your life."
By the time he got to the front of his house, Robertson said he saw two men fleeing – one struggling to climb over the yard fence after the second who was already at the car in which they left.
"My dog came back and had a piece of (one of them) in his mouth," Robertson said.
"They knew we were home ... but when they jimmied my door open, they were not expecting to find a 200-pound American mastiff that was laying on guard."
As Robertson recalled the incident, he choked up before saying Triton died from poisoning a couple of weeks after the invasion.
"Triton dying was like losing one of my children," Robertson said. "If it wasn't for that dog, myself or one of my children may have lost their life. He was our hero that night."
While Triton is gone, his offspring – a son and three 6-month-old grand-pups – have made an impression on the Robertson family.
"Ishee is a fine dog trainer and one of the best breeders I've ever run across."
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A 'glow-in-the-dark' dog is not his goal, but it would be a breakthrough
Despite his success, Ishee could not remove all genetic disorders through breeding alone.
"The process of breeding out just further reduces the dogs' genetic diversity and makes (the disorders) worse than what they already are," Ishee said.
That led him to start a project in 2015 at which he has spent countless hours in his shed trying to genetically alter mastiffs with a "glow-in-the-dark" marker gene found in jellyfish.
It is an ambitious project, especially for someone who never graduated high school. Ishee, who was 18 when his daughter was born, got his GED but never went to college because he did not have the time or money.
So it comes as no surprise that critics have accused him of do-it-yourself pseudoscience.
"With the genetics stuff, I thought it was crazy myself at first," Ishee said. "I spent three months doing research trying to see if it was remotely feasible."
Ishee decided it was and settled on a process called sperm mediated gene transfer, which seeks to change the dogs' DNA by taking the male sperm and combining it with genes from another animal – in this case, a jellyfish.
Ishee currently has 10 dogs and uses sperm from them, but his efforts have yet to involve the dogs in any other way.
Many opponents of genetic engineering in animals say Ishee is trying to create a Frankenstein-like, glow-in-the dark breed of dog.
But Ishee said he is not doing this to make glowing puppies.
Yes, if the process works, Ishee says he will "have green, fluorescent puppies" or at least be able to detect the glowing marker under a microscope, which is exactly why he and other scientists use that specific jellyfish gene as a marker. A fluorescent puppy would be visual confirmation that Ishee had successfully combined a dog's DNA with that of a jellyfish.
Ishee would then be able to use that method to create a technique "that dog breeders can use to correct genetic diseases. Using the marker gene with the fluorescent color is something most scientists do and is reliable and has been done before," he said.
David Ishee's search for DNA supplies led to Netflix's 'Unnatural Selection'
Ishee has met people who have assisted him with his research and who help find affordable supplies, which Ishee says is a necessity since he is self-funding his work.
But he never thought trying to find a supplier of cultured bacteria would one day lead to being featured in a Netflix documentary series.
When Ishee began searching for supplies, he quickly noticed that most of them – including cultured bacteria – are very expensive. He eventually found a website with what he considered insanely cheap prices.
"I thought it was a scam, but turns out it was legit. I got the supplies and everything worked out. I got support from the guy who ran the thing, Josiah (Zayner)," Ishee said.
Zayner, who had just started a supply company providing biotech kits and classes, would become extremely beneficial to Ishee. After several conversations, Zayner invited Ishee to speak at Biohack the Planet, a conference organized by the supplier.
From there, their friendship grew, eventually leading to Zayner connecting Ishee and the people behind Netflix's "Unnatural Selection."
Ishee said, "While the guys were filming Josiah, he was like, 'You got to talk to this guy in Mississippi.' And they called, and that's how I got involved in the series."
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In the show's synopsis, Netflix says the series takes viewers "around the world to meet the scientists, hackers, critics, ethicists and beneficiaries of the technologies that defy evolution and have the potential to do incredible good and, possibly, irreparable harm."
That journey begins with Ishee.
“I had assumed that getting DNA and making changes cost millions of dollars, and that you needed a huge lab and a research team and all that stuff,” he says in the first episode. “But you’d be surprised what you can find on YouTube.”
Ishee believes genetic engineering is "the natural progression of dog breeding."
In fact, Ishee and Zayner are planning to start a dog gene sequencing company for dog breeders to understand "what's going on" with current practices in genetics and inheritance.
The two hope to build a whole genome sequence, allowing for a database instead of relying on one specific place in a normal gene sequence.
"If you can collect a big database, then we can start doing studies that correlate," Ishee said. "That way, we can discover the sources of new problems if enough data is presented."
The two also hope to develop new tools that will help breeders better understand genetics, especially about what they can and cannot control.
"Things like having a way to sequence all your dogs and simulating all your breeding electronically. So, once you got the genome together, you can just click a button and it outputs what you expect," Ishee said.
"That way, breeders can make more accurate predictions and do better at not accidentally breeding dogs that will create problems moving forward."
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This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: 'Unnatural Selection' on Netflix: David Ishee alters dogs' genetics