Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History

Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 8:00pm - 10:00pm

Photo: Craig Venter, an iconoclastic geneticist and businessman, founded Celera Genomics and announced that he could sequence the human genome faster than the publicly-funded Human Genome Project could.

Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images

This two-part documentary, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, airs at a critical moment for the scientific community, as geneticists around the world wrestle with the ethical implications of new technologies that offer both promise and peril. 

The Gene, premiering on Tuesdays, April 7 and 14, 2020 from 8-10 pm on WXXI-TV, weaves together science, history and personal stories for a historical biography of the human genome, while also exploring breakthroughs for diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases — and the complex ethical questions they raise.

Groundbreaking treatments will improve the lives of millions of people — potentially treating diseases like sickle cell — but there are worries that scientists will take gene-editing technology too far, using it to modify germline DNA in order to enhance certain traits deemed “preferable.” As The Gene demonstrates, those fears have already been realized: in November 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui stunned and horrified the scientific community with an announcement: he had created the first genetically edited babies, twin girls born in China — a medically unnecessary procedure accomplished well before scientists had fully considered the consequences of altering the human genome.

The documentary includes interviews with pioneers in the field — including doctors Paul Berg, Francis Collins, Jennifer Doudna, Shirley Tilghman, James Watson, Nancy Wexler and Mukherjee himself. As with Burns’s other projects, The Gene uses a remarkable trove of historical footage, including Rosalind Franklin’s “Photograph 51” from 1952, to track the journey of human genetics. Beginning with the remarkable achievements of the earliest gene hunters and their attempts to understand the nature of heredity, the film traces the history of genetics from Gregor Mendel’s pea plant studies in the 19th Century and Watson’s and Crick’s discovery in 1953 of the structure of DNA to the efforts by Sydney Brenner and Marshall Nirenberg, among others, to understand how the genetic code is translated in human cells. We also witness the massive technological transformation from the 1970s through the 2000s from the sequencing of individual genes by Fred Sanger to the sequencing of the whole human genome. As The Gene introduces us to the scientists solving these great mysteries, the film also examines the insidious rise of eugenics, which bore horrific results in the United States, Europe and, in particular, in Nazi Germany.

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