NOVA “HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA” FOLLOWS A MAVERICK SCIENTIST WHO LOOKS DEEPER INTO THE GENETIC PAST THAN EVER BEFORE

Follow the quest to recover DNA millions of years old for the very first time.

New one-hour film documents major breakthroughs in discovering ancient DNA and how these genes can unlock ancient secrets about life on our planet.

BOSTON, MA; Feb. 15, 2024 — The PBS science series NOVA today announced that the new one-hour film, HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA, a NOVA Production by Handful of Films, Inc. in co-production with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios for GBH, will premiere Wednesday, February 21 at 9pm. ET/8C on PBS. The film, which will also be available for streaming at pbs.org/nova,NOVA on YouTubeand on the PBS App, brings viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the geneticists who recovered the world’s oldest DNA ever to be identified. The film tells the story of a maverick gene hunter, whose single-minded pursuit of an improbable scientific vision would tease and torment him for years before ending with a stunning triumph: the discovery of a lost world recovered from a spoonful of dirt. 

Two decades ago, Eske Willerslev had a radical idea: Could DNA, the fragile chemical code of life, survive intact in frozen sediment for millennia? Fellow scientists called him crazy, but the Danish biologist set out to prove everybody wrong, and his perseverance paid off. After years of failure, Willerslev and his team found the genetic traces of a lush forest ecosystem from before the ice age, more than two million years ago. The species identified from their DNA lived during the last hot epoch on Earth, enduring months of unbroken winter darkness in a forest that thrived in present-day northern Greenland. 

The breakthrough has massive implications for how we understand the deep past. Signaling a new era in genetic research, scientists can now use DNA to travel back millions of years and piece together vanished ecosystems. Today, they are poised to harvest the genetic secrets of these ancient worlds to help us adapt to our own climate future. 

HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA shows viewers what it means to push the boundaries of science, and we’re proud to have worked with this incredible team of filmmakers and scientists to bring this glimpse into the process of science to millions of viewers,” says Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Jared Lipworth. “This film demonstrates how much more there is to explore and how much more we still have to learn.” 

“It’s rare to be able to tell the story of such a momentous scientific achievement from such an intimate vantage,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “Eske Willerslev and the other scientists’ candor about the ups and downs of their years-long quest speaks volumes about the trust engendered by filmmaker Niobe Thompson. We are so proud of our collaboration with Handful of Films and Tangled Bank Studios.”   

Before Willerslev’s discovery, the theoretical outer limit for DNA survival was one million years. On a rainy Copenhagen day in the 1990s, when he was still a student, Willerslev watched a dog-walker pause below his window. As the dog pooped, Willerslev wondered whether the DNA in its feces could remain intact in the environment – and someday be recovered. The stunning implication: could there be intact DNA in soil frozen for millennia? When he asked the question in the laboratory lunchroom, the professors laughed at him. Everyone knew that DNA is an unstable molecule, quickly disintegrating outside a living body. DNA surviving in the dirt for eons was believed impossible. But, where others saw an impassable barrier, Willerslev saw an opportunity. First, he recovered the DNA of ancient microorganisms from ice cores in Greenland. Then in Siberia, he sampled permafrost laid down during the ice age. In the frozen dirt, he discovered the genomes of now-extinct wooly mammoths and other creatures that lived up to 400,000 years ago. In one swoop, he set a record for the oldest DNA ever recovered and identified, and founded a new field of science: ancient environmental DNA. 

Years in the making, and with exclusive access to Willerslev’s team, HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA brings viewers inside one of the most scintillating scientific breakthroughs in years. For the first time, scientists can use DNA to travel back millions of years and piece together now-vanished ecosystems. Using exquisite animations, the film presents an unprecedented reconstruction of an ancient forest world in the High Arctic from before the last ice age, where the ancestors of bears, camels, beavers, and horses adapted to life under the northern lights. 

Willerslev’s discovery comes with an alarming twist. This lush forest world thrived above the Arctic Circle during the Pliocene epoch, when average Arctic temperatures were significantly higher than they are today. The strange and distant Pliocene, it turns out, aligns with our present: this was the last time atmospheric carbon reached the levels present in our atmosphere today. Willerslev’s ancient DNA is giving us a glimpse of our own climate future.  

Now, he and his colleagues are poised to harvest the genes of ancient organisms, in an innovative attempt to help prepare our living world for a hotter future. Could genetic secrets from the Pliocene give us the tools to survive what is to come? 

“The improbable breakthrough at the heart of this film signals that we’ve reached an inflection point,” according to writer and director Niobe Thompson. “We can now harvest the genetic secrets of the deep past and use them to prepare for the future. Hold on – by re-engineering life around us to survive the climate emergency, DNA science is going to change everything!” 

NOVA “HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA” premieres Wednesday, February 21, 2024 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming at pbs.org/nova, NOVA on YouTube, andthe PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO, as well as on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website. 

HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA is a NOVA Production by Handful of Films, Inc. in co-production with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios for GBH in association with ZDF and Danish Broadcasting Corporation. Written and Directed by Niobe Thompson. Produced by Ally Barry and Sandra Tober. Producer and Science Editor is Richard Stone. Executive Producer for Handful of Films is Niobe Thompson. Executive Producers for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios are John Rubin and Sean B. Carroll. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a production of GBH. HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA is distributed internationally by PBS International

Funding for NOVA and HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA is provided by Carlisle Companies, Viking Cruises, the NOVA Science Trust with support from Roger Sant, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. 

Original production funding for HUNT FOR THE OLDEST DNA is provided by Heising-Simons Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation, and the George D. Smith Fund, Inc.

WHO

About NOVA

NOVA is the most popular primetime science series on American television, demystifying the scientific and technological concepts that shape and define our lives, our planet, and our universe. The PBS series is also one of the most widely distributed science programs around the world, and is a multimedia, multiplatform brand reaching more than 55 million Americans every year on TV and online. NOVA’s important and inspiring stories of human ingenuity, exploration, and the quest for knowledge are regularly recognized with the industry’s most prestigious awards. As part of its mission to make the scientific enterprise accessible to all, NOVA is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its work, from the production process to the range of stories we tell and the voices we amplify. In addition, science educators across the country rely on NOVA for resources used in the classroom as well as in museums, libraries, and after-school programs. NOVA is a production of GBH; more information can be found at pbs.org/nova, or by following NOVA on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), or Instagram.

 

About PBS

PBS, with more than 330 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches over 120 million people through television and 26 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature, and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’s broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’s premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math, and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV — including a 24/7 channel — online at pbskids.org, via an array of mobile apps, and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at PBS.org, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook or through our apps for mobile and connected devices.

 

About GBH

GBH is the leading multiplatform creator for public media in America. As the largest producer of content for PBS and partner to NPR and PRX, GBH delivers compelling experiences, stories and information to audiences wherever they are. GBH produces digital and broadcast programming that engages, illuminates and inspires, through drama and science, history, arts, culture and journalism. It is the creator of such signature programs as MASTERPIECE, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, FRONTLINE, NOVA, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Arthur and Molly of Denali, as well as WORLD Channel and a catalog of streaming series, podcasts and on-demand video. With studios and a newsroom headquartered in Boston, GBH reaches across New England with GBH 89.7, Boston’s Local NPR®; CRB Classical 99.5; and CAI, the Cape and Islands NPR® station. Dedicated to making media accessible to and inclusive of our diverse culture, GBH is a pioneer in delivering media to those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired. GBH creates curriculum-based digital content for educators nationwide with PBS LearningMedia and has been recognized with hundreds of the nation’s premier broadcast, digital and journalism awards. Find more information at wgbh.org.

 

About HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios is a mission-driven production company that seeks to shine a light on some of the most significant scientific challenges and breakthroughs of our time. Recent films include NOVA Battle to Beat Malaria, NOVA Ending HIV in America, Oscar-nominated All That Breathes, the only film to win best documentary at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals; Emmy Award-winners The Serengeti Rules and The Farthest – Voyager In Space; Emmy-nominated Nature’s Fear Factor; and Peabody Award winner Inventing Tomorrow. To extend the reach and impact of each film, the studio undertakes educational and public outreachefforts in partnership with mission-focused organizations. For more information, please visitWWW.TANGLEDBANKSTUDIOS.ORG.

 

About Handful of Films
Specialist science and nature producer Handful of Films is known for intelligent, ambitious, and impactful documentary storytelling.  Winner of 7 Canadian Screen Awards for “Best Science and Nature Program,” “Best Cinematography,” and “Best Original Score” for the recent documentaries The Great Human Odyssey, The Perfect Runner, and Equus —  Story of the Horse, the team reached new heights in 2019, with a win at Sundance for Fast Horse and our second Emmy nomination for Transplanting Hope, broadcast on NOVA in the United States.  Handful’s last feature documentary, Carbon — The Unauthorized Biography, premiered at CPH:DOX in 2022, before broadcasts around the world on major public broadcasters.  Under the leadership of founder Niobe Thompson, the team has produced many award-winning documentaries for science-focused strands around the world, including PBS NOVA, CBC The Nature of Things, ZDF Terra X, ARTE and France Televisions.

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February 21, 2024
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Also available for streaming at pbs.org/nova and on the PBS App
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