When the National Institutes of Health approached the Smithsonian Institute about doing a human genome exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2011, the NIH thought it had good timing: 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome, and the 60th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of DNA's structure.
Little did the people behind the exhibit know that when they decided to open the it, genomics would be a topic of national conversation and DNA-based ancestry projects. Visitors in Washington will get a chance to see the 4,400-square-foot exhibit starting today.
In the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has ruled on two landmark cases involving human genetics: On June 3, the court ruled that law enforcement could take DNA swabs of anyone who has been arrested, a decision that could open the door for the creation of a national DNA criminal database. On Thursday, the court ruled that naturally occurring human DNA is inherently not patentable.
"Genomics raises a lot of really interesting social questions in people's minds," says Kirk Johnson, director of the museum. "It's a regular drumbeat in the news. We're trying to arm people with the basic understanding of this so they can understand the challenges and make their own decisions."
Some of those challenges include the moral implications of human cloning, genetic engineering, prenatal genetic testing and the creation of genetically modified organisms.
But creating an engaging museum exhibit about genetics isn't exactly easy: Even when magnified to hundreds of times its microscopic size, DNA is, at its heart, a series of bonded chemicals. The best visual representation of it is a bunch of A's, C's, T's and G's (for adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine, respectively, the four "nucleic acids" that make up every single living thing on Earth).
"It's not quite looking at a dinosaur," says Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the NIH, which headed the Human Genome Project. "We had to bring it to life; we had to make it engaging for the middle school visitor."
To do that, the exhibit features complex DNA sequencing equipment, 3D models of DNA, and interactive games that help explain the benefits and drawbacks of certain genetic advances. A 3D graph explains how a single-celled amoeba has more than 200 times the genetic material of a human, but it doesn't explain why (scientists still don't know).
Perhaps the most striking portion of the exhibit is a giant flatscreen television near the exhibits entrance that rapidly scrolls the DNA sequence of the human genome. The text scrolls impossibly fast, but a sign nearby explains to visitors that it'll take an entire year for the entire human genome to flash onscreen.
And unlike most of the Natural History Museum's exhibits, the science behind genomics is rapidly changing. It took a decade and roughly $1 billion to sequence the first human genome; now it can be done in a day for a few thousand dollars. The exhibit, which is funded by Johnson and Johnson, Ancestry.com and Life Technologies Foundation, is supposed to live in Washington for a year and a half and then tour the country for four years. By the time it's done, the science could completely change.
"No disrespect to the dinosaurs and the fossils and minerals, but the science of genomics is going to change remarkably over the next four to five years. Discoveries happen each and every week," Green says. "We have to be flexible to allow us to keep up."
To do that, the front of the exhibit will feature NIH volunteers who will explain the latest advances in genomics to visitors. The exhibit also features interactive games and constantly changing research surveys that NIH researchers will use to gauge public opinion on certain issues in genomics.
By the time the exhibit leaves Washington in September 2014, more than 4 million people are expected to have seen it. Explaining genetics to the layperson is tough, but Johnson says it doesn't matter if most of them fully understand how genetic testing or engineering works.
"Most people, if they have a preconception about genetics, it comes from GMOs or criminals or forensics," Johnson says. "Most of their questions aren't about the details of the science; it's about the implications of the science. It's critical we tackled that."