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“The Gene: An Intimate History” Illuminates a Promising Future from a Complex Past

past and present lab scenes

When you think of filmmaker Ken Burns, you probably think of American history. He’s become a household name for his documentary films on the Civil War, the Vietnam War and C ountry Music.

But now, Burns’ eyes are on a growing field of science. The Gene: An Intimate History combines personal stories with scientific research to paint a picture of this relatively young field of study and its far-reaching implications. It explores breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, as well as the thorny ethical issues that arise from being able to change and control life on such a fundamental level.

The first episode of this two-part series (airing April 7 at 8 p.m.) begins with plenty of history and tells the stories of researchers like Gregor Mendel, Francis Crick and James Watson, whose early discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries built the foundation for our current understanding of genetics.

It also covers a dark period in which this study led to eugenics, a philosophy and practice that encouraged the cruel treatment of people deemed genetically inferior—from American hospitals to German concentration camps.

The second installment (airing April 14 at 8:00 p.m.) brings us into the present day, with the crowning scientific achievement of our time: the mapping of the human genome. Interpreting the code for all human characteristics, from eye color to IQ to athletic ability, opens so many doors to knowledge about the human condition.

But the newfound ability to modify the human genetic code gives this generation unprecedented powers, raising profound questions about our intentions and how far we are willing to go in “editing” human DNA.

Woven into each episode are the personal stories of people whose daily lives are influenced by the study of genetics. A woman who lost her mother to a devastating, neurodegenerative disease travels to Venezuela to study the largest population of people living with the same genetic condition. A young couple desperately seeks treatment for their daughter’s genetic disorder, which is slowly stealing her ability to walk and talk.

While they don’t always have such dramatic consequences, each of us is the product of the genes our parents poured into us. That combination can yield a limitless number of possibilities: record-breaking athletic prowess, life-limiting illness, or any number of fates in between. The Gene: An Intimate History promises to be a thrilling journey that takes viewers through the past and future of this science, as it grows so rapidly that headlines can hardly keep up. It’s a story of the darkest past and brightest future imaginable, all embedded in the complex code within each of us.

As a complement to this programming, a six-part animated web series, The Animated Gene, will premiere on April 6. Targeted to middle and high school students, it will use informative humor, a mixed illustration style and bite-sized narratives to engage students in this complex subject matter. Each episode focuses on a particular approach to genetics, including “How Things Work,” “When DNA Goes Sideways,” and “The Future of DNA.”

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