The Gene: An Intimate History - Education Resources

The Gene: An Intimate History - Education Resources

Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History

This space is a hub for WXXI's work, resources, and community experiences around the series Ken Burns presents The Gene: An Intimate History

WXXI has been awarded grants to share this two-part documentary series, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, host community experiences, facilitate trainings, and share resources. This space will highlight information and resources from the series, as well as provide details about any virtual or in-person events, screenings, and trainings that may occur.

The Gene: An Intimate History 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. 

 Educator Resources | Full Program | The Book & Connected Books |
Upcoming Events/Trainings | More About the Series

Educator Resources

The Gene PBS LearningMedia CollectionThis four-hour documentary weaves together science, history, and personal stories to create a historical biography of the human genome. It tells the story of the rapid evolution of genetic science from Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking experiment in the 19th century to CRISPR, and the hope that newfound powers to alter DNA with pinpoint precision will transform the treatment of some of the world’s most complex and challenging diseases. The series also tackles the daunting ethical challenges that these technologies pose for humankind. 

  • The collection focuses on: Treatments & Access, At-Home Genetic Testing, and the History of Eugenics.

The Gene Explained Animated Series (for grades 6-12th): Everybody is talking about genes. Your body is filled with them. You look the way you do because of them. But do you really know what a gene is? This animated series won’t get you a PhD, but it does clear up a few mysteries about how genes work, how they make us, if we can change them and what they might look like in the future. (Microscope not required.)


Articles & News Stories: This curated list includes articles and current news stories related to genetics, genomics research, eugenics, and other topics referenced in PBS’ The Gene. These materials are appropriate for educators who serve and work with middle and high school-level students. Please preview all materials prior to using to check for appropriateness.

The Gene Connected PBS LearningMedia Resources: WXXI Education team curated a list of additional resources available from within PBS LearningMedia NY. This list contains lesson plans, videos, interactives and more, from public media partners such as NOVA. These educational materials are geared towards middle and high school and support topics such as: DNA, genetic testing, genomics, eugenics, ethics, and more. 

Full Program
Watch episode 1 and 2 of the full "The Gene" series on PBS LearningMedia. Full series length: ~ 4 hours

  • Watch The Gene in Full
    • Episode 1 Description: The story of a young family searching for a cure for their four-year-old daughter’s rare genetic disease, with stories of the discoveries of the pioneers in genetics. It also tracks the dark period in human history when a little genetic knowledge was used to justify terrible human experiments. (Running time: 1:54:09)

    • Episode 2 Description: The story of the signature scientific achievement of our time: the mapping of the human genome. As scientists learn to read the genetic code, they grapple with the dangers of increasingly sophisticated and easily available methods of intervening in the very essence of what makes us human, our DNA. (Running time: 1:54:10)

The Book & Connected Book Lists

  • Connected Children's Book List from PBS Books: Genetics and DNA make us who we are. As our world and community is gripped by a fearsome pandemic, we are all increasingly aware of the power of genes and the importance of genetic research. PBS Books compiled a list of books to read with your children to better understand the history of genes and DNA. 

  • The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherje
    Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee braids science, history, and memoir into an epic. In this biography Mukherjee brings to life the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices.

  • The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race By Walter Isaacson
    After helping to discover CRISPR, Doudna became a leader in wrestling with these moral issues and, with her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in 2020. Her story is a thrilling detective tale that involves the most profound wonders of nature, from the origins of life to the future of our species.

  • Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code By Matt Cobb
    From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters -- mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists -- who contributed to this revolutionary new science. 

Series Overview and Video Preview:

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.

Related Pages: 

Production funding for KEN BURNS PRESENTS THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY has been provided by Genentech, 23andMe, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Gray Foundation, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) & Conquer Cancer Foundation, Judy and Peter Blum Kovler Foundation, Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Outreach and Education Partner is National Institutes of Health, National Human Genome Research Institute. Outreach support is provided by Foundation Medicine.