Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA

Course No. 10020
Author Sam Kean,
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Course No. 10020
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn how scientists can peer deep inside the DNA molecule to reveal lost stories about our origins, ancestors, and cultural milestones
  • numbers Trace the science of genetics since Gregor Mendel's pathbreaking experiments with pea plants in the mid-19th century
  • numbers Investigate the "Manhattan Project" of DNA: the Human Genome Project to sequence all three billion base pairs of the human genetic material
  • numbers Peer into the future of DNA science to behold wondrous and controversial techniques like CRISPR that will shape our genomes, whether for better or worse

Course Overview

Locked inside the DNA of every species that ever lived are endless stories—about origins, ancestors, fate, and much more. Until recently, these secrets were completely inaccessible. But with the help of new technologies, scientists are now reading the hidden history of DNA, making remarkable discoveries about our past.

DNA not only holds secrets about our ancestors and our development over time, but it also sheds light on the present workings of the trillions of cells inside our bodies. Plus, it provides clues to the future, both the possible traits of our progeny and also our likelihood of developing certain diseases.

Your gateway to this treasure trove of information is Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA, 12 informative and accessible lessons delivered by New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean, whose cogent explanations of scientific phenomena have been praised by everyone from NPR and The Boston Globe to Discover and Enterntainment Weekly.

Over the course of these lessons, you will learn astonishing truths about human genetics and development, such as:

  • Our Neanderthal Kin: Long thought to be extinct, Neanderthals live on inside many of us. A few percent of the DNA in Europeans, Asians, and other non-African groups is Neanderthal in origin, showing that at some point Neanderthals must have mated with modern humans.
  • The Reproductive Revolution: The placenta common to most mammals, including humans, shares features with the genetic material in retroviruses. This suggests that millions of years ago infected embryonic cells changed the way that early mammals produced their offspring.
  • The Origin of Clothing: By comparing the DNA of different species of lice, scientists have determined that human body lice, which live exclusively in clothing, evolved about 170,000 years ago, likely because humans had started covering their bodies with animal skins.

The Drama behind Great Discoveries

Assuming no prior background in science, these detailed but delightful lectures cover the fundamental properties of DNA, the techniques that have unraveled its mysteries, and the very human stories of the scientists who have pioneered the field, often winning Nobel Prizes and frequently sparking controversy.

It all started in the mid-19th century with a pair of discoveries that would not be united for almost a century. Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, working with pea plants, discovered that inheritance is governed by basic rules controlled by discrete units that came to be called genes. Meanwhile, Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher, studying the nuclei of cells, discovered a sticky substance later called deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. Eventually, investigators suspected that genes were located on structures known as chromosomes that are visible in cell nuclei. Some speculated that genes might have something to do with Miescher's obscure molecule, after it was found in chromosomes and as the true size of DNA finally began to be understood.

From the mid-20th century, research moved at an accelerating pace, as you learn through a series of vignettes, including:

  • Biology with a Blender: With the goal of identifying the genetic material once and for all, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase ran a startling experiment involving viruses, radioactive tracer elements, and a kitchen blender. Their 1952 results proved that DNA is beyond doubt the agent of heredity.
  • Deciphering DNA’s Structure: The most famous race in the history of science pitted prominent researchers such as Linus Pauling, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins against a novice team composed of James Watson and Francis Crick. The goal: identify the structure of DNA and the secret of its genetic function.
  • Mapping the Genome: After many breakthroughs, the big prize at the start of the 21st century was a complete record of the human genetic code, consisting of three billion base pairs. Two teams, led by Francis Collins and Craig Venter, competed aggressively and finished in a dead heat in the early 2000s.

Sam Kean tells these stories with lucid technical descriptions combined with a novelist’s flair for capturing human drama. For example, his account of CRISPR—the genetic engineering technique that is currently transforming biology and medicine—takes you from a salt marsh in Spain, to an innovative yogurt plant in Wisconsin, to cutting-edge research labs throughout the world, where disinterested scientific inquiry has turned into a high-stakes race for a commercial bonanza.

Lucky Mutations and Other Stories

DNA also shapes human culture, as you learn in Lecture 6, where Mr. Kean recounts the curious case featured in the title of his 2012 bestseller The Violinist’s Thumb. The thumb in question belonged to 19th-century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, who could twist and contort his digits in extreme ways, allowing him to perform musical fingerings that were beyond the abilities of his peers. Paganini almost surely had a genetic abnormality that would have been a drawback for most human activities, but made him a wild success as a violinist.

In the same way, other genetic anomalies have proved advantageous when the time was ripe:

  • Digestion: The ability to break down lactose—milk sugar—mattered only to young children until humans became herders with ready access to animal milk products. At that point, a gene mutation that allowed adults to metabolize lactose spread widely through herding cultures because of the survival advantage it conferred.
  • Language: Scientists have discovered that a gene universal among mammals that produces a language deficit when mutated in humans. Humans normally have a slightly different version of the gene compared to chimpanzees, suggesting that it plays a key role in language.
  • Intelligence: Human intelligence is under control of a host of genes. For example, a slight shift in a DNA segment a few million years ago resulted in smaller jaw muscles in early humans. This led to thinner skulls, freeing up space for greater brain volume.

Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA also features insights into the secret past of historical figures, gleaned through DNA analysis. You solve longstanding mysteries about the Neolithic “Cheddar Man,” as well as King Tut, Genghis Khan, England’s King Richard III, and U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Warren Harding.

In these and so many other ways, the study of DNA has unlocked knowledge previously assumed to be unattainable and lost forever. And thanks to insights into our own DNA, we also understand how it is that we are endowed with the brains and curiosity to keep the discoveries coming far into the future.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Genes versus DNA
    Your investigation begins with the independent discoveries of genes and of DNA in the mid-1800s—which were not understood to be related for almost a century! Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, used pea plants to discover what discrete units of inheritance are, later called genes. Meanwhile, biochemist Friedrich Miescher extracted a sticky substance from the nuclei of cells later called DNA. Follow both trails into the 20th century, as chromosomes are discovered and the realization finally begins to dawn that genes and DNA may be related. x
  • 2
    The Quest for DNA's Structure
    Join the quest to understand the molecular biology of the gene with the famous blender experiment, which showed that DNA, not proteins, transmit genetic information. Then look at five scientists who competed to solve the mystery of DNA's structure, including Rosalind Franklin and a team of rookie investigators who stumbled embarrassingly in their first attempt: American James Watson and Englishman Francis Crick. x
  • 3
    The Double Helix Revealed
    Enter the home stretch in the race to find the structure of DNA. With eminent chemist Linus Pauling leading the pack, longshots James Watson and Francis Crick got a key clue from rival investigator Rosalind Franklin-without her knowledge. Meanwhile, Cold War politics delayed Pauling. Analyze the reasoning that led Watson and Crick to their 1953 breakthrough, and consider why Franklin didn't beat them to it. x
  • 4
    From Genetic Codes to DNA Fingerprints
    Because DNA is only a blueprint, the discovery of its double helix structure was just the beginning. Trace the next big step: understanding how DNA synthesizes proteins through the intermediary of RNA. Here again, a dark horse researcher—Marshall Nirenberg—made the crucial breakthrough. Then see how DNA fingerprinting became possible in the 1980s, and study how two baffling crimes were solved using this technique. x
  • 5
    The War over the Human Genome
    Cover the “Manhattan Project” of DNA: the Human Genome Project to sequence all three billion base pairs of human genetic material. Two separate teams, led by Francis Collins and Craig Venter, competed bitterly to reach this costly goal, which required new technologies and controversial methods. Examine the politics and unexpected legacy of this effort, which was declared complete in 2003. x
  • 6
    How DNA Controls Itself and Shapes Our Culture
    The decoding of the human genome paved the way for Project ENCODE, designed to identify functional elements in the genome. Focus on examples that are central to human culture, such as language. Probe the foxp2 gene that appears to play a role in speech, together with other genes. Consider the role of mutations and nature's gene splicing in boosting our brain and cognitive abilities. x
  • 7
    Microbes Manipulate Us, Viruses Are Us
    Investigate the curious career of microbes in our bodies—not just the ones that make us sick, but more crucially, those that get incorporated into our DNA, driving evolution in unpredictable ways. For instance, the placenta that makes most mammals distinct from egg-laying animals appears to be an adaptation derived from an invasive virus. Learn why 8% of our genome is viral in origin. x
  • 8
    How Epigenetics Turns Genes On and Off
    Every cell in the human body has essentially the same DNA, yet cells behave very differently, partly due to epigenetics. In epigenetics, the DNA genetic sequence remains constant, but the activity of that sequence changes as genes get switched on and off. More surprising, epigenetics also explains how the inheritance of traits can be influenced by environmental factors, such as health issues in the children and grandchildren of famine survivors. x
  • 9
    Apes, Humans, and Neanderthals
    In the wake of the Human Genome Project, scientists were able to chart our shared heritage with a multitude of species. Most startling was evidence of breeding between modern humans and Neanderthals in the deep past, with a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA present in major human populations today. Peer into the human genome to read these and other clues about our multifaceted history. x
  • 10
    How DNA Reveals History
    DNA has solved age-old mysteries about prehistory: Where did humans originate? When did we first start wearing clothes? How did the agricultural revolution spread? Also delve into historical questions that DNA has answered, involving figures such as King Tut, Genghis Khan, Thomas Jefferson, and King Richard III. Consider Abraham Lincoln to ask where we draw the line in reading genetic secrets from the past. x
  • 11
    CRISPR's Rise, Promise, and Peril
    Investigate the first precision technique for genetic engineering, CRISPR, heralded as holding the potential for science fiction-like manipulation of the human genome. Trace the history of CRISPR-based techniques from a coastal salt marsh, to the biochemistry lab at a yogurt plant, to top research universities, pharmaceutical firms, and the fight over patents. Consider the potential for abuse of this powerful tool. x
  • 12
    How DNA Redefines Medicine and Our Future
    Look at the genetic basis for certain diseases and how personalized genetic medicine might be customized to the hidden histories that each of us have written in our DNA. Discover what makes the challenges so daunting and focus in particular on the different mechanism behind different cancers, and how genetics helps us disentangle the differences. Ponder what new insights into the workings of DNA may be next. x

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Your professor

Sam Kean

About Your Professor

Sam Kean
Sam Kean is the New York Times best-selling author of The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb; Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air around Us; The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements; The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human...
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Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 16.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating I have only seen the first four lessons, but as a physician interested in DNA and epigenetics, I have found the historical aspect fascinating and highly recommend it to both novices and persons with a science background interested in DNA and genetics. From the beginning it explains well in simple terms the mechanism of protein generation. I am certain that the other chapters will be as interesting and it is a great complement to the previous course on DNA offered by the Great Courses.
Date published: 2020-08-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation I was skeptical of presenter but he was excellent.
Date published: 2020-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating information. I just finished the course and was amazed at the things I learned. I have been doing genealogy for about 30 year and in the past 5 years have gotten into genetic genealogy. This course really broadened my understanding of DNA and how it can be used to learn about the history of our ancestors.
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Incredibly Good Course - Recommended +++ Sam Kean is an amazing raconteur as regards new science that has emerged in recent years and is breaking boundaries. One of the best Teaching Company courses ever. Please can we have more from Sam Kean - thank you!
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Master Storyteller I too watched all this in one day. Sam Kean is a master storyteller. Mixing this with the topic of DNA makes learning a complex subject easy. This is a course for all regardless of background. Excellent stories. I also have Sam's books Violinist's Thumbs (which the story of the thumbs are discussed on this course). There is a reason his books are top sellers. Get this course.
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA is 5 Stars!!! The subject material and presentation was so captivating I watched the entire course over 1 weekend.
Date published: 2020-08-16
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