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2017 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom winner

Game of Genomes

Winner(s)
Carl Zimmer and Project Team

Organization
STAT

Award
Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom

Program
2017

Entry Links
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About the Project

We are in the early days of a scientific revolution. Before long, every baby may have its genome sequenced, just as every baby today gets tested for a few genetic disorders. Future generations will be able to read the full text of their DNA and probe its secrets.

For now, however, the human genome remains a mystery to most people.

Carl Zimmer, national correspondent for STAT, was offered a chance to have his genome sequenced. He recognized an opportunity to provide readers with an unprecedented look at the cutting-edge science of genetics.

Other journalists had had their genomes sequenced before, but they were only provided with superficial reports about whether they carried certain genetic variants. Zimmer, on the other hand, went beyond what any other journalists have done. He figured out how to obtain the raw data of his genome — the string of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s that scientists use to understand how people’s genes help make them who they are.

Zimmer then enlisted two dozen scientists to probe his genome, using the latest techniques to discover mutations, variants that protect us from diseases, and even stretches of DNA inherited from Neanderthals.

The result was “Game of Genomes” a 13-part series patterned playfully on the HBO drama “Game of Thrones” and accompanied by an innovative user experience featuring original motion graphics, including an animated version of Zimmer himself.

“Game of Genomes” was envisioned as a modern-day illuminated manuscript — its epic detail made rich with illustrations that blended science and narrative into a digital animated tapestry.

Zimmer’s series was widely hailed by genome experts as an unprecedented look at their science and its implications for all of us.

“The best and most nuanced description of genome analysis circa 2016 that I have seen anywhere,” Laura Hercher, director of research of the genetics program at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote in an email to Zimmer.

One feature that was singled out for particular praise was his decision to post his entire genome — along with all of the analysis from scientists — on STAT’s website. The articles, the analysis, and the data together offer an unprecedented resource for people who want to drill deeper into the science of genomes. In January 2017, Yale University took advantage of this resource, making it the centerpiece of a course called Biomedical Data Science. Students in the course will analyze Zimmer’s genome for themselves, looking for new features that have gone overlooked until now.