In 2015, Executive Producer Ken Burns and filmmaker Barak Goodman brought to public television Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “biography” of a disease: Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Now, the same team will bring to life Dr. Mukherjee’s monumental and highly acclaimed book, The Gene: An Intimate History - the past, present, and future of the fundamental building block of life.
Envisioned as a two-part, four-hour series for public television to be broadcast in the fall of 2018, The Gene will journey through the series of discoveries that together rank as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. It is a story that ranges from a humble 19th century Abbey in the Czech Republic and its garden of pea plants, to the thrumming super-computers of today’s research labs, which have brought us to the threshold of understanding and curing some of the worst diseases known to man.
At the same time, as scientists learn to decipher ever more precisely how genes operate, they are raising profound medical, ethical, and political questions: What is the nature of heredity? Can we alter its course? If such technologies became available, who would control them, and who would ensure their safe use? Who would be the “masters” - and who the “victims” - in this brave new world?
Emperor employed many path-breaking stylistic techniques that will again be on display in The Gene -- historical documentary narrative, as only Burns can do it; dramatic “case studies” profiling real people as they fight illness and decide whether to undergo genetic testing; and explanatory science; cutting-edged animation and imaginative metaphor to bring to life the deepest secrets of life itself.
The Gene will also add a new wrinkle: personal storytelling from Dr. Mukherjee himself, whose family history of mental illness sent him on a journey into his own – and humanity’s – past and future.
In addition to the four-hour documentary, The Gene will create one of the largest digital outreach efforts in the history of public television. Again building on what was learned from the successful Emperor campaign, The Gene’s digital engagement will go even further, drawing together large communities from schools, universities, patient advocacy groups, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and ordinary public television viewers. For if cancer can be said to touch nearly everyone at some point in their lives, the gene is literally all-encompassing – directly relevant to every man, woman and child on planet earth, not only for how they live now, but how we will collectively live in the future. In the next few decades, Americans, and others around the world, will be asked to make difficult decisions on both a public policy and personal level: whether to spend billions in tax dollars supporting genetic research, some of it involving embryonic stem cells; whether to allow the direct alteration and selection of genes that are passed on to future generations; whether to seek genetic testing that will reveal the future course of one’s health; and how to safeguard that information once it is generated?
The animal world and plants share a common genetic endowment with humans. Many similar issues relate to them: Can we selectively improve breeding to produce hardier animals or crops? And what safeguards do we need to ensure that we do not unleash terrible, unforeseen consequences?
The science is advancing at a breathtaking pace, leaving policy-makers, regulators, and ordinary citizens struggling to keep up with, understand, and respond meaningfully to the implications of the latest discoveries.
As Dr. Mukherjee writes in his recently published and highly praised book, “Over the course of just the last year – between 2014 and 2015 – we have invented technologies that allow us to change human genomes intentionally and permanently. At the same time, the capacity to predict form, function, future and fate from an individual genome has advanced dramatically. In short, we can now ‘read’ human genomes, and we can ‘write’ human genomes in a manner inconceivable just three or four years ago.”