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Making Sense of Genomics for the Masses

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By Alison McCook

 

After a summer spent learning about genomics by reporting on it for GenomeWeb.com, I took an afternoon to get a more mainstream take on the topic and went to see the exhibit that had been attracting tourists to the American Museum of Natural History all summer: The Genomic Revolution.

Following a string of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs on the museum’s floor, I paused at the entrance of a dimly lit exhibit room, and overheard a family next to me. “Is it scary?” a little girl asked her father. “No. This is the human genome,” he said, picking her up and carrying her into the darkness.

The exhibit is designed to answer the questions: Just what is genomics? Why is everybody talking about it? To that end, the museum has assembled a sort of multimedia classroom, replete with video clips, sound bytes, hands-on models, and polling stations that ask visitors’ opinions of genomics and display the opinions of others.

Even the most complicated information is presented in bright colors and engaging formats, and I would wager that many visitors leave the exhibit with their first understanding of the relationship among DNA, chromosomes, genes, and proteins. One of my favorite features of the exhibit was a 3-D model of Drosophila DNA where visitors produce mutations by rotating individual rungs while a monitor shows them whether a change in that base pair produces any visible mutation (I made a leg grow out of its head).

The exhibit introduces the scientists as well as the concepts behind cloning, genetic screening for diseases, and genetic engineering. There are stories of people whose lives have been changed by genetics — video clips of women who underwent screening for breast cancer genes, and a family that selected one embryo over others for their second child in order to create a bone marrow match for their ailing daughter.

Presenting the main issues of genomics posed certain challenges to the exhibit designers, who spent some two years in planning. Ward Wheeler, curator of invertebrate zoology at the museum, says that, in an industry where things change every day, the designers had to struggle to ensure that the exhibit would be current. In fact, just in case a human had been cloned by the time the exhibit opened, extra space and materials were set aside for a clone gallery.

According to Wheeler, the purpose of the exhibit is to educate people about what genomics is and what it means, but not to drill information into their heads. As he says, there is enough information for everyone, at all levels, to learn something. “It’s like a salad bar,” he says. “You take what you want, and leave the rest.”

Alison McCook was an intern at GenomeWeb this summer.

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