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Vol. LXV, No. 17
August 16, 2013

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Science & Learning
Genome Exhibit Educates People of All Ages at Smithsonian

On the front page...

The human body is remarkable and certainly complex. The entire human genome—the body’s genetic blueprint that contains 3 billion base pairs of those twisting molecules known as DNA—can fit inside every cell in our bodies. Relating the intricacies of this science to a general audience could be tricky. But NHGRI’s new exhibit, “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, makes genomics accessible to all, engaging and fun.

A collaboration between the Smithsonian and NHGRI, the colorful exhibit includes high-tech interactive displays, animations, 3-D models, videos with personal stories and straightforward explanatory text in each gallery. Volunteers, on hand to lead activities and answer questions, enhance the visitor experience.

The exhibit explores how the genome relates to health care and disease. One display explains that trillions of microbes—from fungi to viruses to mites—live on our bodies and, in fact, outnumber humMan cells 10 to 1. But fear not; they help us carry out life processes. And, over time, research on the many thousands of species of microorganisms will help us learn how to restore the microbiome when people get sick.


“People are engaged in this topic,” said Dr. Carla Easter, deputy chief of NHGRI’s Education and Community Involvement Branch (ECIB). “Teaching genomics is not easy. It’s a word not common in our vocabulary. Now, with the genomic revolution, people are more familiar with it in health care discussions and the National Museum of Natural History is utilizing genomic technology to enhance their research.”

The exhibit commemorates the anniversaries of two scientific achievements: the 10th anniversary of completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the 60th anniversary of James D. Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953, which laid the foundation for modern medical advances. NIH’s Human Genome Project sequenced the genome of a composite of individuals that will eventually lead to a greater understanding of mutations that cause disease. More immediately, it will help researchers personalize medicine and improve diagnostic testing.

Visitors take in some of the interactive attractions of the “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington, D.C. Visitors take in some of the interactive attractions of the “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington, D.C.

Visitors take in some of the interactive attractions of the “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington, D.C.

Photos: Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

“Two years ago, we had a meeting with Dr. [Wayne] Clough, the Smithsonian’s secretary, looking for ways to build stronger programmatic relations and outreach,” recounted Vence Bonham, chief of ECIB. “Out of that meeting came the idea for a collaborative exhibit on genomics. We brought together two teams, NHGRI and the Smithsonian’s natural history museum, to work for 22 months as one team. Together we developed content, artifacts and concepts—collaborating to develop this exhibit.”

The various displays explore genomics as it relates to us as individuals, as members of a family and as part of biodiversity in our universe. Learn how researchers sequence a genome and how that data can transform our lives. Explore genomic ancestry from personal stories on video to archaeological evidence. Discover how genomics affects evolutionary changes and our natural world.

Activities and information also invite visitors to ponder the ethical, legal and environmental implications of advances in genomic science. Guests can contribute to the discussion via an ongoing research project. In an area known as the Genome Zone, there’s a list of questions on the wall: “What’s unique about your genome? Anything you want to remain a mystery? What do you hope scientists will discover about human health and medicine using the genome?” Visitors can text their brief answers, which become part of an online word cloud, and track the responses at

“This is also a social genomics research project,” said Bonham. “It will provide an opportunity for the exhibit visitor to participate in social science research conducted by a group of social and behavioral investigators at NIH.”

Funding for the exhibit came entirely from private donors.

When walking through the exhibit, it’s inspiring to see children of all ages engaged in hands-on learning. “The [exhibit’s] technology is engaging and, more importantly, friendly so people aren’t intimidated to learn about something so impactful,” said Easter. “Having young kids [spending time] in the exhibit is a wonderful start and an opportunity to build on their baseline knowledge.”

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code opened in June. It will remain at the National Museum of Natural History until September 2014, after which it will travel to major cities across North America for the next several years.

For more information, visit

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