Our long and winding road to understanding ‘The Gene’

The field of genetics has seen exponential growth in recent years, and today may be on the verge of further breakthroughs that will radically change the way we function as a species. But to understand genetics now, one must first understand its complex past dating back to the 19th century, a past chronicled in Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book “The Gene.” Mukherjee joins Judy Woodruff for more.

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    It seems as if there are important breakthroughs each year in the field of genetics and medicine. In many ways, we indeed could be on the verge of historical changes in how we use DNA and how we edit our biological code.

    But the moment can be deceptive. The history of genetics is long and complicated, dating back to the mid-19th century. It's full of exciting discoveries, endless mysteries and even nefarious intent.

    That's the ambitious scope of a new book, "The Gene: An Intimate History." Its author is Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He's the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer."

    Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, welcome to the "NewsHour" again.

    DR. SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE, Author, "The Gene: An Intimate History": Pleasure to be here. Thank you.


    So, an intimate history within what? Just a short time after you have come out with this award-winning book on cancer, you tackle an arguably more complicated subject, the gene, and there is a personal connection. Explain that.


    Well, this book took actually a long time to write. It was — it took six years to write this book.

    And the book gets intimate right from the first page. The story opens really with an exploration that was in the back of my mind where I — as I was growing up. It was about my family's mental illness, two uncles consumed by schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and then, one generation later, another, so, on the same side of the family, also diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, and the growing realization in my mind as a child that this wasn't — there was some heredity lurking, that genes were lurking behind mental illness, and that coming to fullness as I started to study medicine and realize that there was a genetic core to all of this.


    You sense, in reading this book, that there is an urgency to this, that you felt it was important to get this done now. Why?


    It's important to get this done now because we are at the — on the verge of unveiling or discovering and inventing astonishing new technologies that allow us to read and write human genomes.

    And let me explain what I mean. By read, I mean we can now begin to scan the human genome, your genome, mine, all the genes that you and I have, and ask questions about what it predicts for us in the future.

    The technology is far from accurate, but, for instance, the risk of breast cancer may be present in a variation in your genome. And by write, I mean something even more strange, which is that, lately — and this has been widely covered, but, lately, we have been able to — scientists have been able to go into the human genome and make intentional alterations, erase genes, change genes, change their content, et cetera.

    That's a surprising thing to do and portends a very, very complex landscape for the future.


    And you do get to some of these very tough questions.

    But you also — you really go back through the history of genetics, all the way back to Aristotle and even before that, I guess, Pythagoras, move ahead to Charles Darwin. There are a number of figures along the way you spend time on.

    Is one of them more important than all the others?


    Well, they're all important. This is a story knitted together with other stories.

    And I wanted to keep things simple enough, so that all readers could get — you know, the average reader, I could understand what the lineage of inventions and discoveries was.

    One of the most important figures, of course, is Gregor Mendel, a monk who sort of persisted with his experiments on pea flowers and pea plants, and just using those very, very simple experiments really brought out what was at that time a revolutionary understanding that units of carrying hereditary traits or features were moving between parents and their children.

    That was a striking — a striking and original observation, so striking, so original, Judy, that he — that it was lost, the paper was lost. No one even remembered it for 40 years.


    And his story is so personal. You write about all the disappointments he had. He was trying to pass an exam, never passed it.


    Twice, failed twice.


    Twice, twice, which I think may be a lesson for a lot of people.


    I know.



    Young people today worrying about passing their exams.

    You also of course — and we suggested this a moment ago — get into the darker side of genetics, the movement or efforts along the way to tailor and fix the human progress in a way that's negative and dangerous.

    Why do you think that effort didn't — it was bad enough, but why do you think it got as far as it did?


    Well, the road to that particular hell is paved with — actually was paved with progressive intentions.

    I mean, that's what's interesting about the story. We forget it. We have forgotten that, that when the idea of eugenics was invented, the idea that you could improve the human race by better breeding, when it was invented, it was actually invented in England by Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin.

    And a lot of progressives, not all, but a lot of progressives signed on to it and thought that it was really great to improve the human race by selective breeding.

    Now, what is amazing about is that that idea metastasizes to America, to our shores, and becomes, you know — that selective human breeding becomes selective human sterilization, Carrie Buck, a woman…


    To whom you dedicate the book, along with your grandmother.


    To whom I dedicate the book, along with my grandmother.

    Carrie Buck was sterilized for eugenic reasons. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great judicial moderate, said three generations of imbeciles is enough. So, we were allowed — the state was allowed to sterilize Carrie Buck on that pretext.

    And then it metastasizes again to Nazi Germany, where it takes on the most macabre form, moving from breeding, to sterilization, to ultimately to extermination. Of course, we remember the Nazi Germany, but we forget that this was our problem, too. This was not only their problem. This is something that arose out of a very particularly moment in American history.


    You write — you take genetics, Siddhartha Mukherjee , all the way to today, practically, and the inventions that are coming and the discoveries that are coming almost at rate, a daily pace, and yet you do signal the limits of this.

    It feels as if, just a few years ago, people were thinking, oh, we're going to solve all our medical mysteries with the genome. But it isn't that simple, is it?


    It is not that simple.

    It's very important to remember what parts are simple and not. Otherwise, we need this vocabulary. This is a vast public debate, and it cannot be had within the laboratory or in tissue culture rooms or in medical boardrooms. It has to had in a wide public place as possible.

    But things are more complicated, because your genes predict the future, but not in an absolute sense, not in a one-to-one sense. In other words, there is still a striking role of chance, a striking role of the environment. It's chance, plus genes, plus environments, and these interactions between them that make you and me.

    And the gene predict a little bit in some cases, a lot in other cases. And we need to figure out what I what. We need to appropriately match where genes are useful and where genes can be misleading.


    So, what — how should we think about genetics right now Should we think that there is still so much more to be discovered that can make a huge difference, or that we're coming closer to the end of what there is to be known?


    I think both of these things can be true at the same time. There is a vast cosmos yet to be discovered. How do genes manage to make, you know, a human being?

    And yet there are things that we already know that are very important. We know that we can predict with certain levels of fidelity whether you will have a heightened risk for certain illnesses, cancer, potentially Alzheimer's disease, potentially other diseases. We can begin to predict that risk.

    So, the question is — it's a very uneasy time, because, simultaneously, we're being able to, as I said before, read and write the genome with a limited capacity, but also projecting forward into the future, understanding that there's a whole new landscape that needs to be figured out.


    Well, it was only a short time from the book on cancer to the book on the gene. So I'm assuming you have already started on the next one.


    Oh, I have not.



    Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.

    The book is "The Gene: An Intimate History."

    Thank you very much.


    Thank you for having me.

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