Skip to main content

Tracing the ‘Intimate History’ of the Gene

Meredith Francis
The Gene: An Intimate History
Geneticists wrestle with the moral implications of groundbreaking new technologies in a new documentary.

Part 1 of The Gene: An Intimate History is available to stream until May 5. Episode 2 airs April 14 at 8 p.m. on WTTW.

A new two-part, four-hour documentary tracks the history of the study of genetics, as well as the implications – both good and bad – for modern-day experiments with the human genome.

Executive produced by Ken Burns, The Gene: An Intimate History is based on a book of the same name by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. His first book, Cancer: The Emperor of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize and was also developed into a 2015 Ken Burns documentary.

The film is set against the backdrop of a scientific community wrestling with the ethics of new genetic technologies that have both promising and dangerous outcomes.

“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 Dr. Mukherjee in a press release. “At this pivotal moment when scientists find themselves in a new era in which they’re able to control and change the human genome, The Gene offers a nuanced understanding of how we arrived at this point and how genetics will continue to influence our fates.”

The film chronicles the history of genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s pea plant studies in the 1800s, to the disturbing use of eugenics in Nazi Germany, to modern-day discoveries since the 1970s. It also weaves in personal stories, examining people who live with genetic diseases, such as sickle cell and spinal muscular atrophy, who may benefit from recent discoveries in gene editing. 

But the documentary also examines the ethical implications and unintended consequences of gene-editing technology, such as using it to modify DNA to enhance “preferable” traits, or the 2018 story in which a Chinese researcher announced he had created the first genetically edited babies – twin girls born in China – which was a medically unnecessary procedure. 

In addition to the four-hour documentary, there is also a series of digital animated shorts that unravel the mystery of genes.


Part 1 of the series is available to stream until May 5. You can watch part 2 on Tuesday, April 14 at 8 p.m. on WTTW.