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Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA

A master storyteller uncovers the epic history revealed in our genes in this course on what DNA tells us about our past, present, and future.
Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 71.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Courses for horses Upon reading many of the more negative reviews… I’ve come to realise that there is an experience factor in purchasing courses. The fact that the lectures are: 1) Presented by a journalist 2) 12 lectures 3) Use the word HISTORY in the title Should reflect on the purchasers expectations. It’s OBVIOUSLY a survey course. It’s deliberate delivered in a historical/anecdotal manner, and many people find this a fantastic way to discover new things. There is a place in the market for this series, just make sure as a purchaser that you are on the right place yourself.
Date published: 2024-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Lecturer Sam Kean is a terrifir lecturer. I didn't know much about DNA before. Now I know just a little bit more. This is a series of lectures that I will re-watch in a month or two because they are also great entertainment
Date published: 2024-01-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Science writing is different from lecturing The fact that the author is a science writer instead of a professor is the biggest issue in this course. He lectures as he reads the script, which was written in a science journalism style. While this style works great in print for reading, it doesn't work equally as well in a lecture setting. Here we really somebody to "teach science" but not to "write about science", and it's clear the author doesn't have any experience in classroom teaching (I myself am a professor so I can tell). Compared with excellent TGC courses by Prof. John McWhorter (linguistics) and Prof. Robert Greenberg (music), this course lacks the excitement that you would enjoy from a top quality university course. Minor: the video doesn't add too much info to the audio. It should contain many more diagrams.
Date published: 2023-09-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good Journalism But Poor Science This is a series of lectures that discusses the process of working out what DNA is and how it works. Unfortunately, the information is primarily anecdotes about the persons who were involved in this process, and not much about the process itself. And, when Mr. Kean does discuss the process, particularly in the later lectures which deal with more recent work, he uses a lot of "some scientists think" and "maybe in the future" kind of (to my mind) journalistic click-bait that doesn't actually tell you much about the underlying science and nothing at all about concrete ongoing research. For example, contrast the handling of epigenetics here with the GC course on Epigenetics by Dr. Mykura. Fundamentally, I think Mr. Kean is a good journalist but a lousy scientist. You'd be better informed by reading a good science magazine.
Date published: 2023-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from POWERFUL Kean’s 2020 Course Scope begins with a brilliant caution: "Whatever we know, or think we know, about DNA, our knowledge is often intimately connected to how we made our discoveries." In the 70's we were told [as Lecture 6 (=L6) states] that the majority of DNA was non-coding and therefore "junk" DNA. Yet in the 70's Complexity Theory stated that complex systems (such as DNA) have multiple simultaneous starting conditions changing dynamically to solutions that are final only for a particular moment in time [See Great Course "Chaos" by Strogatz]. There should be little or no “junk”. L6 to L9 reinforce such a view. L1 recounts the struggle to determine whether 22 amino acids proteins or 4 DNA letters carried genetic information. In the1940s, DNA's code was misrepresented because rough DNA extraction methods broke it into "unnaturally small pieces". In those experiments (L2), one T2 broth contained radioactive phosphorous in its DNA; the other radioactive sulfur in it protein. Each was squirted into separate petri dishes with bacteria. After time for T2 to latch on to the bacteria, they were “knocked off” each solution with a kitchen blender and a centrifuged isolated the bacteria. Unexpectedly, a Geiger counter found radiation only in the DNA incorporated phosphorus and none in the protein/sulfur solution. I remember the T2 experiment from my father’s texts as he studied for his PhD. L2/L3 elevates Rosalind Franklin whose observations of how DNA phosphate backbone at times attaches to water and at others loses water produced the critical Photograph 51 (of x-rays reflected from DNA onto film) providing a 2-D “picture” that could be extrapolated into various 3-D. An intermediary (Wilkins), jealous of her abilities showed this to Watson and Crick who were building a “Tinker-Toy" style chemical DNA model. It confirmed Watson's idea that DNA was a helix. But their model ignored Franklin’s water-phosphate interactions. It was not until Chargaff proved that adenine and thiamine/cytosine and guanine were always paired that a double-helix with its bases at the center (and phosphates outside as Franklin predicted) shape revealed to Watson/Crick how DNA worked. L4: Genes code for proteins are rarely subject to deadly “frameshift mutations" (addition or deletion of a letter). Genes are far apart and the “noncoding" DNA between is more subject to mutations and inheritance. "Satellite repeats" of DNA base triplets don’t seem to have function but aid DNA fingerprinting (L6) and lineages (L10). L6: over 80% of non-protein coding "junk DNA" gets transcribed into RNA. Here Kean begins to describe how genes drive, and are sometimes driven by, culture: “nature and nurture work together to make us who we are.” We are each a special creation both biblically and in our “non-coding DNA”. He then discusses the effects of the FOXP2 intelligence/language gene where we picked up 2 or 3 amino acid changes after splitting from the great apes that allow FOXP2 to interact with new genes. Gene splicing, where cells "decide" what to chop out of the RNA copy to remove introns and preserve exons is exemplified by a protein that links muscles with other tissue. 14,000 exons are separated from 2.2 million introns in a 16-hour process! Furthermore: our brain cells chop and edit base strings for different effects far more often than other primates and allow “jumping genes” that provide neuronal variety. L7 on microbe manipulation posits that “mobile genetic elements" are at times useful for gene regulation OR may give rise to viruses. As you can imagine, we are now into Chaos Theory and L12 warns that a “personalized medical" DNA change “will almost certainly lead to unintended consequences”. L8 covers “DNA as hardware while epigenics is the software that uses methyl groups or histones (chromosomal protein spools) that can turn genes on or off. Epigenetics explain why identical twins grow distinct over time and how cocaine and heroin can permanently mis-spool DNA. For those wanting to go to Mars: 6 months after twin astronaut Scott Kelly's single year in space, his epigenetics resolved in “all but 800 genes”. IMPORTANT: Most epigenetic changes seem to be erased after fertilization except for male epigenetics acquired between ages 9 and 12. L10: Y gene testing shows the Genghis Kahn dynasty incessant abuse of women (Great Course "Barbarians of the Steppes”_Harl) links 16 billion men as his progeny today. SUMMARY: Kean's brilliant course is a summation of much of how far we have come from the “junk DNA” viewpoint.
Date published: 2023-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So much new information! I have had very scant background in the whole of biology and have been trying to understand epigenetics - very difficult with my lack of knowledge. This course gave a relatively high level understanding of genetics along with so much interesting history and possibilities for the future.
Date published: 2023-05-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More History than Science The operative word in the title is *history*. This course is a history of science. Thus, it is more anecdotal than technical, although the anecdotes are about technical events. The course is a twelve-lecture series on the *history* of discoveries in genetics. There is nearly as much discussion of the politics of scientific discovery, funding, and credit as there is of the technical discoveries themselves. The history starts with Gregor Mendel and his peas in the 19th century and proceeds through the discovery of DNA in the 20th century and concludes with a discussion of epigenetics today. Mr. Kean (he does not have a PhD) is a writer and neither a professor nor a researcher. He communicates well (as one would expect for a writer) including communicating the basics of genetics. He uses graphics well to reinforce his points. The course guide is above average by The Great Courses (TGC) standards. It is written in paragraph form (as opposed to outline or bullet format). There are more than 10 pages per lecture, which is greater than most TGC course guides. However, there are few useful graphics embedded into the lectures. The appendices include a multiple-choice quiz (fortunately, with an answer key) and a bibliography with a description of the value that each reference provides. Oddly, there is no glossary, which one might expect for a technical subject such as genetics. Perhaps even more oddly, there are no biographical notes, which one might expect for a course focusing so heavily on *history*. I used the audio version. While most of the lectures merely showed Mr. Kean speaking and most of the graphics were pictures of historical figures, there were some important technical graphics as well. There is some loss of content merely listening to the lectures as while jogging or commuting. The course was published in 2020.
Date published: 2023-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So interesting I raced through it The course was one of the more engaging ones that I have watched. In addition, it struck a good balance between giving background and building on the prior knowledge presented. While it has been many years since high school biology and chemistry, the background required to understand the presentation was minimal. However, the topic was not "dumbed down", just presented in a way to understand concepts without trying to overreach. The speaker was dynamic and easy to listen to. The graphics were very helpful in illustrating his points.
Date published: 2023-03-13
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Assuming the viewer has no background in science, these 12 half-hour lectures cover the fundamental properties of DNA, the techniques that have unraveled its mysteries, the exciting revelations that have come to light, and the stories of the all-too-human scientists involved. Witty and informative, the lectures are delivered by science writer and podcaster Sam Kean, author of the bestseller The Violinist's Thumb.


Sam Kean

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

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.

By This Expert

Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA
Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA


Genes versus DNA

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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

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