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Ken Burns' 'The Gene: An Intimate History' Gives Hope in COVID-19 Times

Siddhartha Mukherjee explains the new science documentary

The production floor for novel genetic therapy a drug treating Spinal Muscular Atrophy on the R N A level

The Gene: An Intimate History

The production floor for novel genetic therapy — a drug treating spinal muscular atrophy on the RNA level.

En español | If anything could make it more important to watch the latest Ken Burns-produced science documentary, The Gene: An Intimate History (PBS, April 14, 8 p.m., also on DVD and streaming on PBS apps), it's the coronavirus. “This little bit of genetic material can essentially bring the economy of the world to a standstill,” says Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., who wrote the best-selling book the show is based on and serves as host.

The four-hour documentary is a life-and-death scientific detective story of genetic discoveries leading up to today, and showcases the dramas of real people whose lives are transformed — and saved — by what the scientists discover. “We mingled extraordinary stories of people with the history of genetics. It's vintage Ken Burns, but it's new, too,” says Mukherjee.

"We finished the film before this devastating pandemic broke on the world,” he adds. “But all the methods that we're using today to track the course of this pandemic are genetic techniques. When we make new generation vaccines against this virus, we'll be using the same techniques that the scientists in the show discovered to create recombinant DNA. We would be helpless against this pandemic, had it not been for the hundred years of genetics that preceded it."

Cheryl Yoder and two of her sons sit by a fire in their yard

The Gene: An Intimate History

Cheryl Yoder and two of her sons sit by a fire in their yard in Baltimore, Maryland.

If you want an uplifting story of survival, watch the story of Cheryl and Jeremy Yoder, who lost one of their five children to spinal muscular atrophy, and then were told that their newborn had it, too. The genetic breakthroughs the show explains so clearly give the Yoders hope — in fact, their adorable son manages to sit up, a great achievement. “We have extraordinary footage of him being treated with a genetic drug, and walking for the first time,” says Mukherjee. “It brought tears to my eyes. Usually children are paralyzed, and they die before taking a single step. So it's moving, it's history. And it's the future of genetics."

Audrey Winkelsas discusses her experiments with the lab manager at the National Institutes of Health.

The Gene: An Intimate History

Audrey Winkelsas (middle) discusses her experiments with the lab manager at the National Institutes of Health.

Another amazing tale is that of Audrey Winkelsas, a young scientist born with spinal muscular atrophy. She's like Stephen Hawking — disabled, disfigured and confined to a wheelchair, yet making scientific discoveries and helping communicate scientific ideas to a broader public. The difference: Winkelsas specializes in research on her own disease. She's also a singer who fears her illness will rob her of her voice and community, but clever gene editing shows promise in preventing this. You'll never hear a more soaring note than the one she sings in a hymn of hope with her church choir.

The Gene shows the promise gene therapy may hold for sufferers of all kinds of diseases, from diabetes to sickle cell anemia, heart disease to schizophrenia. Viruses, which Mukherjee likens to genetic vampires, can cause pandemics and cancer, but they also can be engineered to serve as life-saving tools in gene therapy.

The Gene inspiringly proves the oneness of humankind, which nearly went extinct 80,000 years ago, when only about 10,000 men and women survived — and because all humans now alive share so few ancestors, we're very close genetically and the idea of “race” is, scientifically speaking, total nonsense.

Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ken Burns

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Siddhartha Mukherjee (left) and Ken Burns.

The show is also about human nature as well as the human genome. “We don't shy away from the colorful personalities in gene science, and the conflicts,” says Mukherjee. The leaders of the Human Genome Project (HGP) sometimes insulted and tried to sideline each other, and even a hero like James Watson, who helped discover DNA and launched the HGP, could be a total jerk.

More disturbingly than the personal peccadillos of its practitioners, gene technology can be used in scary ways, as in the Nazi eugenics movement — which was inspired by Americans. “Eugenics was not a Nazi invention,” says Mukherjee. “It's very much a part of American history, as in the Carrie Buck story, which we've ignored.” In 1927, Buck, a teenager and a good student, became the first person sterilized by the state under U.S. eugenics laws, because she was pregnant by a cad who abandoned her, and promiscuity was considered an inheritable failing. Also, her foster parents wanted to avoid scandal.

"These technologies are very new, and we're still exploring how to use them, how to think about them,” says Mukherjee. As citizens, we are obligated to think harder about genetics. The Gene is a most pleasurable way to find out what we all need to know, now more than ever.