The National Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition on the human genome includes a couple of nifty metaphors for its wonky subject matter.
In one segment of a four-part video produced by the History Channel, former president Bill Clinton calls it “the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” Elsewhere, it’s referred to as a set of instructions, or owner’s manual, for our bodies. But for a boring dictionary definition of the genome as the “complete set of genetic or hereditary material of a living organism” (i.e., DNA), you might do better to just ask any middle-schooler wandering through the gallery.
What, have you been living under a rock?
Organized by the museum in conjunction with the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” commemorates the anniversaries of two major scientific milestones: the 1963 description, by Francis Crick and James D. Watson, of DNA’s double helix; and the completion, in 2003, of the Human Genome Project, a 13-year project that set out to determine the precise order of chemicals, called nucleotides, that make up DNA.
Genetics has been in the headlines a lot lately. The morning I toured the “Genome” exhibition, the Supreme Court was just announcing its decision that human genes cannot be patented, in a case involving the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. (You may recall that Angelina Jolie, who learned that she carries the former mutation, made those genes famous last month when she revealed that she had had both breasts removed as a precautionary measure.)
The debate surrounding Jolie’s decision suggests that the best metaphor for the genome may not be a map or a manual but a key to something of a Pandora’s box. In fact, the show’s subtitle itself, “Unlocking Life’s Code,” suggests that possibility, too. Along with its general tone of tempered optimism about the scientific possibilities that genetic sequencing presents, “Genome” raises many fascinating questions, including this one:
Now that this box is open, what do we do with our access to what’s inside?
It’s not frivolously rhetorical. And to its credit, “Genome” weaves questions of genetic privacy, identity, discrimination and other bioethical concerns into its many interactive displays. Should a child be tested for a hereditary disease, and at what age, if the symptoms don’t arise until adulthood? And is withholding the result of such tests okay if the knowledge might cause undue distress? There’s a touch-screen station at the center of “Genome” that asks visitors these and other provocative questions.
Some are just for fun. Would you pay $200 to have dog poop analyzed if your next-door neighbor was accusing Fido of using his lawn as a toilet and you wanted to exonerate your pet?
To scientists, there’s no such thing as good news, bad news or silly news. Knowledge is power. But power can be dangerous. Or at least the subject of great debate.
Consider genetically modified food.
As the show points out, all living things have a genome, including, for example, rice. (Intriguingly, the exhibition notes that we share a whopping 92 percent of our code with that dietary staple, compared with 96 percent with chimps. Who knew?) But what of our potential to manipulate rice on a genetic level to make it a more nutritious and productive crop?
To its credit, there are more hard questions than hard answers in “Genome.” Barbara Biesecker, a National Institutes of Health researcher and genetic counselor, worked on some of those questions, along with the interactive survey that visitors will be able to participate in by going to the show’s Web site. According to Biesecker, that survey, which will collect information about people’s evolving attitudes regarding the social implications of genome sequencing, will go live by the end of this month.
In an interview, Biesecker suggested that science may be changing faster than we can keep up with it. As an example, she noted the controversy surrounding a recent policy decision by the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics. According to the group, whenever gene sequencing is performed for any single medical condition, analysis of 57 additional potentially disease-causing genes must also be performed. That’s even if the patient does not wish to know the results of those extra tests and even if the patient is a child.
“Genome” will be on view at Natural History through the summer of 2014. After that, it will travel for four to five years. In that time, there will certainly be new advances in our understanding of “life’s code” as well as new questions.
To accommodate those changes, “Genome” was designed to be flexible. That means that it includes a news ticker display spitting out a continuous stream of late-breaking developments via connections to such information outlets as NHGRI’s Twitter feed.
According to NHGRI Director Eric Green, it also means this: Given the fact that the field of genomics is expected to grow enormously in five years, this exhibition — like our own DNA — has a certain built-in obsolescence.
But one thing is certain. Once opened, the door to the mysteries of the human genome is not slamming shut any time soon.
“Genome” makes a couple of attempts to show just how much information is contained in the human genome, which typically consists of about 3 billion paired chemical units formed from the nucleotides adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, abbreviated A, T, G and C. If the letters of the code were written on sheets of paper, for example, they would form a stack almost as tall as the Washington Monument.
There’s another example in the show, too. Designed by Yonder Biology, a video display runs a continuous scroll of those four letters, in an artistic effort to interpret the scale of the human genome. It will take a full year for the sequence to run from start to finish.
But wait, there’s more. Yonder Biology specializes in turning DNA into personalized artworks. Through its Web site, you can order a collection kit, submit your genetic material and purchase such customized merchandise as glowing DNA wall “portraits” as well as shoes imprinted with your private genetic “fingerprint.”
— Michael O'Sullivan