Feb 19, 2020 - News

The Gene: An Intimate History



23andMe is a proud co-sponsor of “Ken Burns Presents, The Gene: An Intimate History,” a fascinating new PBS documentary detailing the revolutionary discoveries emerging in this new genomic age.


The film is based on Pulitzer-prize winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name. Airing over two nights in April, the four-hour documentary looks at the past, present, and future of genetic science and its promise to improve the lives of millions of people across the globe. The film movingly details the stories of people saved by breakthrough genetic therapies. But the film also looks honestly at the ethical dilemmas this new era presents.


“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 Mukherjee.

A Previous Collaboration

Along with writing books, Mukherjee is also an assistant professor of medicine at the Department of Medicine, Columbia University, as well as a cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. 


The film is the second collaboration between Mukherjee and Burns, who previously worked together on an Emmy Award-nominated adaptation of another of Mukherjee’s books, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” This new documentary is equally weighty, skillfully adding context to the mapping of the human genome, the most significant scientific breakthrough of a generation. 


“For me, science, like history, is the exploration of what has come before and the promise of the future,” said Burns. “THE GENE untangles the code of life itself.” 

Gene Therapy

The episodes unfold with stories about the scientists and the people they have helped to save. One episode of the series details how gene therapy has saved the lives of two young children with a typically fatal genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy. 


“I’d say each moment where there has been a dramatic success doesn’t just enliven the people who are working on the disease, it ripples across the field,” said Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and a geneticist who helped discover the genes associated with cystic fibrosis. “It’s one more reason to believe that those decades of really hard slogging are finally beginning to yield up some remarkable events.” 


The film was directed by Chris Durrance and Jack Youngelson, with award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman serving as senior producer. Burns and Mukherjee served as executive producers. With Burn’s distinctive style, the film also includes historical footage, photos, and interviews to document the history of genetic science.  


Along with these stories and others that note how genetic science is deepening our understanding of health conditions, the series also explores the ethical implications surrounding the science of gene editing.


The film wrestles with what happens now that the human genome is mostly readable. As in Mukherjee’s book about genetics, the series also delves into the ethical dilemmas raised by gene editing. This new technology allows scientists to modify the human germline to stave off deadly genetic conditions, or for less lofty purposes. 

Ken Burns Presents The Gene: An Intimate Story airs April 7 and 14 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS member stations nationwide.

Find out more about the series and air times here.


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