gene pbs

Indian American oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Siddhartha Mukherjee speaks onstage during the 2017 New Yorker TechFest at Cedar Lake Oct. 6, 2017 in New York City. (Brian Ach/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Indian American physician, scientist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s New York Times best-selling book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” forms the basis for a new PBS documentary of the same name from Ken Burns and Barak Goodman.

The four-hour, two-part documentary focusing on the science, history and personal stories of the human genome aired April 7 and April 14 on PBS stations nationwide.

“The Gene: An Intimate History” brings vividly to life the story of today’s revolution in medical science through present-day tales of patients and doctors at the forefront of the search for genetic treatments, interwoven with a compelling history of the discoveries that made this possible and the ethical challenges raised by the ability to edit DNA with precision, according to PBS.

Part one, “Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics,” interweaves the present-day story of the Rosens, a young family on an odyssey to find a cure for their four-year-old daughter’s rare genetic disease, with stories of the exciting discoveries of the early pioneers in genetics. This episode also tracks the dark period in human history when a little genetic knowledge was used to justify terrifying human experiments.

Part two, “Revolution in the Treatment of Disease,” begins with 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 inherent in increasingly sophisticated and easily available methods of intervening in the very essence of what makes us human, our DNA.

“These revolutionary discoveries highlight the awesome responsibility that we have to make wise decisions, not just for the people alive today, but for generations to come,” Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and staff cancer physician, told Columbia News.

The documentary had been finished just before the first cases of coronavirus were reported in China, so it was too late to include what would soon become the Covid-19 pandemic, “a global crisis inextricably tied to our genes,” Mukherjee was quoted as saying.

“A piece of genetic material—29,000-odd nucleotides of RNA—coated with protein has upended the world,” Mukherjee told Columbia News. “Virtually every technology we’re using to track and treat Covid-19, even an oral or nasal swab to detect whether you are infected, relies on genetic techniques.”

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