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The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History

  • Premiered: 
    April 7, 2020
    (Click date to see TV listings for that day)

  • Network: PBS
  • Category: Series
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Type: Live Action
  • Concept: 
    Based on the 2016 book (The Gene: An Intimate History) by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee 
  • Subject Matter:
  • Tags: science

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Plot Synopsis

Executive produced by Ken Burns and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY is a two-night, four-hour documentary that 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. Based on Mukherjee's 2016 book of the same name, this two-parter features 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.

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. 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.


Other Titles

  • Also known as: Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate History