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Smithsonian Exhibit Aims to Make Genomics Relatable to the Public

WASHINGTON, DC (GenomeWeb News) – Genomics is poised to become increasingly part of everyday life, and a new exhibit opening today at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, seeks to make it relatable to the public.

The exhibit, called Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, was created through a partnership between the Smithsonian and the National Human Genome Research Institute and was unveiled at an opening event yesterday. Two years in the making, it is broadly timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project and the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson.

With interactive portions and a number of videos and animations, the 2,900 square-foot exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History seeks to make genomics and its many applications accessible and relevant to the general public, particularly to schoolchildren. As a number of speakers at a media event following the unveiling of the new exhibit noted, many future researchers are first exposed to science, and science as a career, at museums.

"It is exactly the right thing for a natural history museum," said Kirk Johnson, the NMNH director, at the event previewing the exhibit.

Eric Green, the director of NHGRI, noted that the exhibit will be at the Smithsonian for a little more than a year — and estimates by the museum indicate that it may be seen by as many as 4 million people.

After introducing the general concepts of genetics and genomics, the exhibit delves into both medical and natural world applications of genomic technologies. Sequencing technologies themselves are represented by an Ion Proton. (The Life Technologies Foundation is a sponsor of the exhibit, along with Johnson & Johnson, Ancestry.com, and the Brin Wojcicki Foundation.)

The medical corner of the exhibit highlights a number of genes that have been linked to diseases and showcased how genomic technologies have thus far been put to use in the clinic. For example, one video outlines the medical odyssey that the Beery twins underwent to find the genetic cause of their dystonia and other ailments. Another panel notes that genome sequencing aided in the epidemiological tracing of an Escherichia coli outbreak in Germany back to some suspicious sprouts.

Also sprinkled throughout the exhibit are mentions of ongoing projects, funded by the National Institutes of Health, including The Cancer Genome Atlas and the Human Microbiome Project.

But genomics can also be applied to the natural world, and the exhibit draws attention to research underway to understand the diversity of life on Earth. In particular, it underscored the efforts of the Moorea Biocode Project, supported in part by the Smithsonian, that seeks to create a database of the diversity of life in the tropics. Another Smithsonian-related project on display outlines the use of genomics to identify birds involved in airplane bird strikes to help chart routes to avoid those birds' migratory paths.

At the same time, the exhibit asks visitors to consider a number of ethical and social issues related to genomics, particularly to genomic medicine.

The exhibit, too, is doing a little research of its own. It encourages visitors over the age of 18 to consider a number of issues — such as whether there is information contained within their genome they'd rather not know — and to text their responses, anonymously, to NHGRI.

The hope, in part, is to raise the genomic literacy of the general public. "On the near horizon," Green said at the afternoon event, "genomics will be relevant to patients" as well as their families and friends.

"We are not going to change the face of medicine between now and 2020," he later added, "but advances in biology and a surge in knowledge of biology of disease" will lead to advances in medical sciences that will likely have implications for the general public.

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