Reviews Art

The Genomic Revolution

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 02 June 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1371
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne, medical journalist
  1. New York

    Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, until 1 January 2002

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    American Museum of Natural History

    Glowing through the darkness are the lights of green for adenine, blue for cytosine, yellow for guanine, and red for thymine—the four bases of DNA. This spectacular exhibition guides visitors through dimly lit rooms, past gleaming panels, interactive computers, video comments by expert scientists, hands-on experiments, and polling stations. It presents a clear view of what we know about human, animal, and plant genomes. In an even handed way it raises questions about genomic research and its implications, and asks viewers to consider ethical problems and make choices.

    Gene genius: vials containing DNA samples from various species, and (right) one of the exhibition's three polling stations

    Gene genius: vials containing DNA samples from various species, and (right) one of the exhibition's three polling stations

    Rob DeSalle, curator of the exhibition, told the BMJ, “In 10 or 20 years, everyone will be making decisions about their genes. Technology outstrips the ethics.” The museum conducted a national survey that showed people did not understand the vocabulary of genomics. Either laid back or ignorant, Americans did not react to issues of genetically modified foods or cloning with the fury of Europeans. For example, 70% of Americans said that, as far as they knew, they had never eaten genetically modified food, whereas almost all have indeed eaten it. More Americans were in favour of cloning a favourite pet than cloning a favourite human, although the majority opposed both ideas.

    DeSalle said the museum believed the exhibition would help everyone gain the knowledge to make decisions about the way genomics would affect them. The first section shows Watson and Crick's original model of the double helix and gives due credit to chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA is often ignored. The next lets visitors guess the genetic similarity between humans and animals—98% with chimpanzees, but did you know it was 7% with Escherichia coli? Other sections consider the new medicine, with videos of people who have already been treated with gene therapy; the possibility of choosing children with “good genes”; and changing genes through gene therapy. Another section addresses the pros and cons of genetic modification of animal and plant foods.

    If you ever wanted to explain the polymerase chain reaction to your children, take them here. The animation sequence makes it simple. Other sequences clearly show chromosome unwinding, mRNA transcription, how proteins are made, and how they fold to be functional.

    Three computer polling stations let visitors answer ethical questions, such as who should have access to their genetic information. They can anonymously compare their answers with those of people surveyed nationally and with those of other museum visitors.

    A real, working laboratory lets visitors find and sequence their own DNA. It is set up for classes of 36 high school students, but will be open to museum visitors at other times. A resource centre gives visitors brochures and access to search the web for more information. Through the year the museum will present films, lectures, and workshops on genomic issues.

    This is the best science museum exhibition I've ever seen.

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