Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Both intelligent and fun. Mr. Kean has a real talent for taking science and making it understandable, relevant, and entertaining. I think this was even better than his very likable books.
Date published: 2021-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sam Kean is one of the best presenters I've heard among the dozen Great Courses I've purchased. Fascinating topic and very timely in this Covid19 period. The historical aspects of DNA highlight the excitement, frustration, competition, and collaboration of scientists...as well as the rapid advancement of scientific applications once basic chemistry is discovered, established and built upon.
Date published: 2021-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course Was meant to be a homeschooling thing for my teen but I ended up listening in myself because it was very interestingly presented.
Date published: 2021-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Presentation This was a very fascinating presentation. Sam Kean is a great presenter and a fluid writer. The topics are great and he flows from one topic to another seamlessly. Toxoplasmosis opened my eyes, all cat owners should know about this. I wish I could make all my friends watch this. If anything I have some problems with the camera angles which is a Great Course problem, not Sam Kean's.
Date published: 2021-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant and Fascinating Presentation is so engaging and coherent. Content is superb. .
Date published: 2021-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Impt! Need to know this material! Just watched last week. After also had watched Stress and the Body (Great Courses 2020) 12 hr lectures I have come away with the current mantra: "The human body is a HIGHLY EVOLVED Virus fighting machine, we have been defending against viruses since the beginning of humankind 300,000 yrs ago." - some humans cross bred species (like mules) & have Neanderthal DNA which offers a superior virus fighting trait. Have to rewatch.
Date published: 2021-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Let's have more by him Excellent course. Engaging and well-paced delivery. Keeps main topics in mind as he bolsters them with details. Reinforces narrative with helpful video selections. Recruit him for future courses.
Date published: 2021-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not everything that can be done should be done A very interesting course regarding the historical aspects of the impact of DNA on our life. I enjoyed very much the lectures on gene edition (CRIPR-CAS9) and the last lecture on how DNA redefines medicine and our future.
Date published: 2021-01-09
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Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA
Course Trailer
Genes versus DNA
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.

33 min
The Quest for DNA’s Structure
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.

30 min
The Double Helix Revealed
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.

31 min
From Genetic Codes to DNA Fingerprints
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.

33 min
The War over the Human Genome
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.

30 min
How DNA Controls Itself and Shapes Our Culture
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.

33 min
Microbes Manipulate Us, Viruses Are Us
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.

33 min
How Epigenetics Turns Genes On and Off
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.

33 min
Apes, Humans, and Neanderthals
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.

32 min
How DNA Reveals History
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.

32 min
CRISPR’s Rise, Promise, and Peril
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.

32 min
How DNA Redefines Medicine and Our Future
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.

30 min
Sam Kean

I take you on an extraordinary journey into the hidden building blocks of life, the very essence of what we are.

About 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 Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery; and The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.


The Bastard Brigade was on NPR Science Friday’s list of Best Science Books of 2019, while Caesar’s Last Breath was The Guardian’s science book of the year in 2017 and a runner-up for the 2018 Best Book Award from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In addition, The Disappearing Spoon was short-listed for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books in 2011, and The Violinist’s Thumb and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons were nominated for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award in 2013 and 2015, respectively, as well as the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.


Mr. Kean edited the 2018 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Psychology Today, and Slate, among other publications. He also has been featured on such programs as NPR’s Radiolab, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air.


Mr. Kean’s books have been translated into 24 languages around the world, and he hosts a podcast called Disappearing Spoon. He received BA degrees with honors in Physics and English Literature from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as well as a master’s degree in Library Science from the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

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