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Airs Tuesdays, April 7 & 14, 2020 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV + Fridays, April 10 & 17 at 4 p.m., Saturdays, April 11 & 18 at Noon, Thursdays, April 16 & 23 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, a publicly-funded, ...

Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images

Above: Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, a publicly-funded, international effort to sequence all three billion letters of the human genome.

Documentary Series Unravels History of the Human Genome and Explores the Ethical Implications of Groundbreaking Developments in Genetics

Ken Burns presents THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a two-part, four-hour documentary based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, will premiere on Tuesdays, April 7 and 14, 2020 from 8-10 p.m. and on the PBS Video App.


THE GENE weaves together science, history & personal stories for a historical biography of the human genome, while also exploring breakthroughs for diagnosis & treatment of genetic diseases & the complex ethical questions they raise.

The film 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 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.

The Most Human Thing We Have in Common

“This generation has the responsibility to protect and to understand and to intervene on the most human thing that we possess in common – the human genome. And it’s an awesome responsibility.” - Dr. Sid Mukherjee.

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.”

The Race to Sequence the Human Genome

Catch up on the race to sequence the human genome and the consequences of what would happen if genes involved in diseases such as breast cancer became available only to the highest bidders.

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.

“These revolutionary discoveries highlight the awesome responsibility we have to make wise decisions, not just for people alive today, but for generations to come,” said Dr. Mukherjee, assistant professor of medicine at the Department of Medicine (Oncology), Columbia University and staff cancer physician at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “At this pivotal moment when scientists find themselves in a new era in which they’re able to control and change the human genome, THE GENE offers a nuanced understanding of how we arrived at this point and how genetics will continue to influence our fates.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

David Botstein, the father of gene mapping, and Paul Berg, the father of recombinant DNA, address an audience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory at a 1986 symposium on sequencing human DNA.

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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Nancy Wexler Archive

Anne Young and others on Nancy’s Wexler’s team draw blood from a young man in Venezuela. Wexler and her colleagues collected blood and skin samples in an effort to locate the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease. The disease marker was discovered in 1983 only a few years after their search began, but the actual responsible gene wouldn’t be identified until 1993.

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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Archives, California Institute of Technology

Calvin Bridges, Alfred Sturtevant, and O.L. Mohr worked with Thomas Hunt Morgan on his drosophila experiments at Columbia University. (undated photo)

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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Moravian Museum - the Mendelianum Archive

A portrait of Gregor Mendel, a friar at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, Moravia. Mendel was recognized after his death as the father of modern genetic science.

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.

THE GENE juxtaposes this dynamic history with compelling, emotional stories of contemporary patients and their families who find themselves in a desperate race against time to find cures for their genetic diseases.

The film follows the inspiring, heart-wrenching journeys of people such as Audrey Winkelsas, a young scientist born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy researching a treatment for her own condition, and Luke Rosen and Sally Jackson, parents on a tireless quest to raise awareness for their daughter’s rare degenerative disease.

Hopes rise and fall with new discoveries and setbacks, revealing how intimate and profoundly personal this science can be for families affected by genetic diseases.

A Young Family Navigating Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA)

This excerpt is the story of a young family with two children who have spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). SMA is a rare genetic neuromuscular disease that affects the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. It is a deteriorating disease — and children with this form of SMA may survive to two years of age or older.

As it traces groundbreaking developments in genetics that promise to revolutionize life for millions of people, THE GENE also documents the thorny ethical questions some of these new treatments raise.

Today, geneticists find themselves on the brink of curing diseases long thought fatal — but given the harrowing history of eugenics, both the scientific community and the public are forced to grapple with the ethical implications of these new technologies.

Are there unintended consequences to changing human genomes? Could changes accidentally unleash cancer or some novel new genetic disease? From the prospect of genetic therapies to CRISPR, the film explores the complex web of moral, ethical and scientific questions facing this generation.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Filmmaker Quotes:

“THE GENE explores the ultimate mystery story — it unpacks the once-impenetrable science of what makes us who we are,” said senior producer Barak Goodman. “This is a moment for the general public and the scientific community to engage in a national conversation about the thrilling future of genetics and the ethical challenges posed by new science.”

“We want people to leave our film feeling both hopeful about these stunning developments and sensitive to the ethical questions facing the field,” said directors Chris Durrance and Jack Youngelson.

“I was thrilled to reunite with Sid and Barak on this project,” said Ken Burns. “For me, science, like history, is the exploration of what has come before and the promise of the future. THE GENE untangles the code of life itself.”

The Gene Explained Series:

In conjunction with the broadcast, WETA is developing an expansive interactive website and social and digital media components, including a multi-media educational initiative designed to engage teachers and students through multiple platforms. including a six-part animated series, that delves into the complexities of genetics. Using mixed illustration styles, each episode will focus on a particular approach to genetics, including “How Things Work,” “When DNA Goes Sideways,” “The Future of DNA,” and more.

The Gene Explained | Gene Filled Donuts

We know that genes are the instructions that make us who we are, but how do genes do that? This episode gives a quick glance into how those mysterious instructions buried in a gene become the actual nose on a face.


Episode 1 airs Tuesday, April 7 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV + Friday, April 10 at 4 p.m., Saturday, April 11 at Noon and Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 - A fascinating history of the human genome weaves together science and personal stories. Patients with rare genetic diseases and their doctors seek to discover cures, often in a race against time

Episode 2 airs Tuesday, April 14 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV + Friday, April 17 at 4 p.m., Saturday, April 18 at Noon and Thursday, April 23 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 - Geneticists wrestle with the moral implications of groundbreaking new technologies that offer both promise and peril. Audrey, a determined young scientist with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, researches a treatment for her own condition.

Dominant vs Recessive Traits

How could you take a piece of information and make it vanish from one generation, and then have it reappear? The only way is if the genetic information doesn’t get erased. It can be suppressed and hidden, but it remains intact across generations.


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Ken Burns is on Facebook, and you can follow @KenBurns on Twitter. #TheGenePBS

How Many Genes to Build an Organ Like the Brain?

How many genes does it take to build an organ as complex as the human brain? The answer? Fewer than in an onion! Discover just how many human genes there are.


The series is directed by Chris Durrance and Jack Youngelson, with award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman serving as senior producer and Ken Burns as executive producing alongside Dr. Mukherjee. THE GENE has largely the same production team as "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," which premiered on PBS in 2015 and was the Emmy Award-nominated adaptation of Mukherjee’s 2010 book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C., in association with Ark Media. Executive Producer and Senior Creative Consultant: Ken Burns. Written by Geoffrey C. Ward; and Barak Goodman & David Blistein. Narrator: David Costabile. Senior Producer: Barak Goodman. Directors: Chris Durrance and Jack Youngelson. Executive Producers: Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Dalton Delan, Tom Chiodo, John F. Wilson and Anne Harrington.


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