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Smithsonian Museum to Launch Genomics Exhibit Supported by Life Technologies Foundation

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History will collaborate with the National Human Genome Research Institute to open an exhibit next year that will highlight human genomics at its museum on the National Mall, leaders from the two institutes said at an NHGRI meeting in Bethesda yesterday.

Funded with $3 million from the Life Technologies Foundation and an additional $500,000 coming from other partners supporting the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the exhibit will seek to educate NMNH's seven million annual visitors about the human genome, and genomics in general, and how it is being studied and used for medicine and other purposes.

The exhibit will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project and the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. It will be housed in a 2,500 square-foot space in NMNH's Hall 23, a number that NHGRI Director Eric Green pointed out yesterday to the council reflects the number of human chromosome pairs.

"The goal of the exhibition is not just to celebrate but to look ahead and acknowledge that we are in the early stages of a very exciting genomic era, that we have learned a remarkable amount about how the genome works and how it contributes to health and disease, and that the pace of research is only accelerating and becoming increasingly relevant to people," Green told the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research during its quarterly meeting yesterday, which was webcast via NHGRI's website.

"It is not enough [for] researchers like me and others at NHGRI and to be excited about the human genome and the opportunities before us. ... Because genomic knowledge will become increasingly relevant it is all the more urgent for the public to understand and to appreciate the applications it has for society and for individuals and medical care.

Other funders providing support for the initiative include the Brin Wojcicki Foundation; Celgene; Pacific Biosciences and PacBio President and CEO Michael Hunkapiller and his wife Beth; New England Biolabs; and Genentech.

Green said that the exhibit, which is currently in development and is scheduled to open next summer, will have several organizing themes, including "the genome and you," the natural world, and how genomic knowledge will help humanity. The exhibition also will touch on evolution, and the ethical, legal, and social obligations that come from a new understanding of human genomes, Green explained.

Elizabeth Duggal, who is associate director for public engagement at NMNH, told the council that "one of the key pillars of the museum's current strategic plan focuses on global genomics," so it is fitting that the museum will aim to "engage and educate" its visitors about the "transformative role of genomics" in the 21st Century.

"As the pace of research is only accelerating and becoming increasingly relevant to everyone, and the daily aspects of our lives, it is urgent for our visitors to identify [that] DNA is the universal code that connects all life on earth, past and present," Duggal said.

She said she views the exhibit as NMNH's "role as a museum to educate society about the revolutionary implications" that genomics will play in the advancement of personalized medical care. "Additionally, with this exhibit we can highlight how genomics helps us better understand the natural world around us," she said.

Duggal said that the "hi-tech, forward-looking exhibit" will remain at NMNH for at least one year and then it will travel to other venues around the country and the world. It will employ digital and social media platforms, and an accompanying documentary film project may be undertaken through partners at the Smithsonian or the Public Broadcasting Service, she noted.

Jonathan Coddington, associate director of research and collections at NMNH, told the council that the museum is well positioned to become "a museum of genomics."

He said that at some point the NMNH building will become "the largest and densest collection of genomes on Earth," adding that it is already the largest bio-repository in the world, and that harnessing the information in that repository for genomics research is part of the museum's five-year plan. Coddington also noted that the museum plans to create a 15,000 square-foot genomics lab located at the National Mall.

"At the end of months of initial intense planning between the staff at each institution, I can say to you that this genomics exhibit will be way cool and truly befitting of a field that is transforming so many aspects of biomedicine," Green told the council.

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