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Unlocking Life’s Code … With a Museum Exhibit

Today’s Newscripts post was written by C&EN intern and genomics fiend Puneet Kollipara.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project’s completion—when scientists successfully sequenced nearly all the base pairs of human DNA. It’s also the 60th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. What better way to commemorate those milestones than with a museum exhibition devoted to genomics?

Photo Jun 13, 10 30 36 AM

VIPs browse “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” which seeks to educate the public on genomics and its societal implications, following a reception honoring the exhibit’s launch. Credit: Puneet Kollipara

That’s exactly what the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institutes of Health have done in a new partnership. Last week they opened “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” to educate the public on the science of genomics and its societal implications. A website accompanying the exhibit provides additional educational resources. The 4,400-sq-ft exhibit runs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., through September 2014, after which it will travel to other museums around the country.

The exhibit’s architects faced a number of challenges when dreaming up the installation. For starters, translating such a large, hard-to-visualize scientific field into a story that a general audience can understand was no easy task, says Vence Bonham, a researcher with NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). To aid in communicating the concepts, the exhibit features a number of high-resolution screens that play videos or animated graphics explaining key concepts in genetics and genomics.

The exhibit also emphasizes the use of activities to teach complicated subjects; for example, an interactive puzzle teaches visitors about how genomics could improve medicine by having them use genetic information to find the best drug for a disease. Another display asks visitors’ opinions of controversial issues in genomics, such as whether people are obligated to participate in genomic research.

Other activities within the exhibit are just plain cool: One lets you build a necklace that has a vial containing a visible sample of your own DNA — a way to remind you that nearly all your cells contain the code of life. To make the DNA visible, visitors take a sample of their cheek cells and place them into a detergent- and alcohol-containing solution that breaks down cell membranes and causes the genetic material to clump together.

Another more unique challenge during the creation of “Genomics” was the ever-changing nature of the scientific field: Just as genomics is continually evolving, so too must the exhibit. To address this challenge, the designers made the exhibit flexible enough that individual elements can be swapped or edited easily, says NHGRI Director Eric Green. The exhibit architects don’t just expect to have to make changes — in a way they welcome them, because new discoveries will likely benefit society.

Genome: Unlocking Life's Code

The exhibit features a variety of activities, including a polling station where users can sound off on their opinions about controversial issues in genomics. Credit: Donald E. Hurlbert and James Di Loreto / Smithsonian

Visitors won’t just be able to learn about genomics. Another interactive activity will let them participate in studying it, too — sort of. NIH researchers plan to set up a station where visitors can volunteer to participate in a series of surveys on their perceptions of genetics and genomics. They’ll also be asked to share how their perceptions of social norms and constructs change as they’re exposed to genomic information.

The surveys aren’t ready to go public yet. Once the surveys are ready, though, the reports that follow from them, says Barbara Biesecker, also a researcher with NHGRI, will serve as a “first foray” into how the general public perceives and is influenced by genomics. The findings could help scientists improve how they write and talk about genomics to the public, or how physicians explain genetic testing to patients, she says.

The icing on the genomics-exhibit cake was news that came out the day “Genomics” was unveiled to reporters. To the surprise of those in attendance (including me), the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision holding that human genes can’t be patented.

The ruling might have stolen the show. But in a way it actually enhanced the unveiling, and it will enhance the exhibit itself, NHGRI’s Green says. “I think it makes it incredibly emblematic of why we need to help educate the general public about the field of genomics,” he tells C&EN. “And now here we give them an exhibit and a website to understand what they need to know about genes and genomes and genetics.”

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