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Cracking the Code of Life

Program Overview


NOVA follows corporate and academic scientists as they race to capture one of the biggest prizes in scientific history: the complete, letter-by-letter sequence of genetic information that defines human life—the human genome.

The program:

  • introduces Celera corporate scientist Craig Venter and MIT Whitehead Institute academic scientist Eric Lander, who runs one of the primary government-funded genome sequencing sites.

  • explains Venter's breakthrough that isolated genes from "junk" DNA via high-speed computing and the use of short fragments of DNA called "expressed sequence tags".

  • profiles the different research methods and styles of the academic and corporate scientists.

  • reviews the debate and struggle over patenting genes.

  • speculates on legal and ethical questions relating to use of the human genome.

  • explains the structure and function of DNA, what a gene is and what it does, and how proteins—produced by genetic instruction—actually govern the body's processes.

  • uses animation to depict how scientists "read" the genetic code and determine where genes are located.

  • notes that almost every disease can trace its cause to some genetic mutation.

  • provides examples of individuals and doctors who face health decisions that rest on information the human genome contains.

  • summarizes that while mapping the human genome is one of the most significant achievements of the century, when finished, the project will really have just provided the infrastructure for years of future work in detecting, treating, and possibly curing human illnesses.

For additional background information see:
What Will the Future Bring?
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Teacher's Guide
Cracking the Code of Life
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