Exhibit Encourages Self-Reflection at the Natural History Museum
newest exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH),
Genomic Revolution, is
like a life-sized, colorful, interactive biology textbook. But
contrary to some opinions about bio texts, this exhibit is fun,
making you think about the complex issues surrounding genomics
by asking introspective questions. The exhibit culminates in a
hands-on lab where you can actually see your own DNA.
The study of genomics is different from genetics, the study of
heredity, although they intersect at many points. Genomics looks
at the genome, all the genetic material in the chromosomes of
an organism, as a whole. To explore it, the exhibit starts with
a screen showing a colorful cascade of the 3.2 billion DNA bases
(see photo at right).
Every living organism has genes, but this exhibit is decidedly
human-based. The first interactive station compares humans with
other living things—roundworm, yeast, chimpanzee, etc. As you
push a button corresponding to an organism, a camera snaps a shot
of your face and puts it up next to the picture of what you selected,
displaying a graph of your shared genetic code—seven percent with
bacteria, 98 percent with the chimp.
Three polling stations throughout the exhibit ask you questions
such as “What is your greatest fear about genomics research?”
that were used in a nationwide survey conducted by the AMNH. The
polls compare your answers with the national responses.
are still more questions than answers,” said Ellen Futter, President
of the Museum, about the field of genomics. And those questions
are clearly set out over the course of the exhibit. Topics include
Genetic Identity (nature
vs. nurture), medical uses of gene therapy, and genetic enhancement
(choosing genes). They are addressed with text on the walls as
well as first-hand accounts and video narratives. “The science
in the exhibition is woven into the human issues,” explained the
curator, Rob DeSalle.
is a good chance that a human might be cloned when this exhibit
closes in January,” explained DeSalle. Thus, “it’s been designed
to be updated as we go.”
One may ask, however, why the AMNH is so concerned with human
genomics. Along with the exhibit, the AMNH is also opening an
Institute for Comparative Genomics that will use a new, 10,000-square
foot frozen tissue lab that can hold up to 32 million specimens.
According to Futter, the non-human genetic research that will
take place there will complement and enrich human biomedical research.
genomic research does not focus enough on other species,” said
Dr. Michael Novacek, Senior Vice President and Provost of the
Museum. The research will contribute to the creation of a ‘tree
of life’ that will map the way species interact with each other.
the learning lab at the end, technicians show you what these genes
are all about. They have you swish salt water in your mouth to
gather cheek cells. Then, using soap followed by rubbing alcohol,
they separate the cells from the water, break them down and pull
out strings of your DNA. This may be the best visual aid of all.
It is here that you realize that the questions framed by the exhibit,
pertain not to researchers, farmers or doctors, but to you. The
very substance of the entire exhibit lies right inside your mouth.
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