Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code

BannerA new exhibit opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Friday, June 14: “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” to recognize the 60th anniversary of Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix and the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. The goal of this temporary exhibit is to educate visitors about DNA in general, the technological and scientific accomplishments of the HGP and implications of new knowledge gleaned from the complete human genome sequence, including many ethical, legal and societal issues such as potential genetic discrimination by employers and insurance companies, the use of DNA for human identification, prenatal genetic screening and privacy concerns.

A few of us here at Promega were fortunate enough to view the exhibit the night before it opened to the public. There was a lot to see and do, with plenty of interactive displays to keep even career scientists interested and amused. What were some of the highlights?

The 2,500-square-foot exhibit has something for everyone, from young students with little scientific training to Genetics professors, and covers a wide range of topics, starting with a definition of DNA and a discussion of its role as cellular instruction manual in the Molecular Biology dogma of DNA → RNA → protein. PhylogenyFrom there, visitors are introduced to “The Tree of Life” and encouraged to explore phylogenetic relationships between organisms—relationships that can be characterized by genetic differences and similarities. Many visitors might be surprised to learn that moderns humans and chimpanzees share 99% of their genetic material and that two unrelated humans share 99.9% of their DNA sequence. Visitors also might be surprised to learn that modern human genomes have small amounts of Neanderthal DNA in the portion of the exhibit titled “Our Genomic Journey”, which tracks migration of early hominids from their origin in Africa to Europe, Asia and finally North and South America. Of course, no exhibit on the human genome would be complete without a discussion and examples of the technology used. On display are examples of DNA sequencers and videos by scientists involved in the HGP to provide an overview of the technical steps and challenges of sequencing the 3 × 109 base pairs that make us who we are. Some of these scientists, dubbed “Genome Geeks”, even volunteer their time at the exhibit to answer questions.

Not content to focus just on past achievements, exhibit organizers incorporated a lot of forward-thinking content, including several displays about how knowledge of the human genome sequence will affect us in the future. One prominent example is personalized medicine. HealthMuseum visitors are asked to think about how DNA sequence could affect medical outcomes and decisions. For example, Huntington’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by an autosomal dominant mutation; if a person has the defective gene, he or she will develop the disease. There is no way to cure or prevent it. If you had the defective gene, would you want to know? How would you live your life differently if you knew, and would this knowledge affect your decision to have children?

For other diseases, knowing a person’s genome sequence could provide upfront knowledge of a genetic condition and may provide a means of escaping a deadly disease. A recent example is Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy; her chance of developing breast cancer without the mastectomy is 80–90%, but with the surgery, only 5%. Of course, genetics is not the only player in medical outcomes; environmental factors play a role as well. As a reminder of that fact, an interactive display allows people to compare the risk that two individuals will develop lung cancer: A nonsmoking person with a genetic predisposition to develop cancer might have the same health risk as a heavy smoker without the same genetic predisposition. Genetic knowledge may not be the be-all, end-all answer to medical questions.

The human genome sequence is not without controversy, and this exhibit does a great job of introducing a number of ethical, legal and societal dilemmas. There are a lot of interactive components to engage visitors and opportunities for visitors to provide feedback and opinions about some of the more controversial topics and learn how their opinions compare to others who have completed the same set of questions.

TickerOne of my favorite features of this exhibit is a stream of text that is constantly being updated. Scientific discovery moves fast, and a static exhibit just can’t keep up. When a few of us from Promega were viewing the exhibit the day before it officially opened to the public, this text stream already included an announcement about the (US Supreme Court’s decision, made that same day, that human genes cannot be patented.

Finally, the Genome Zone includes a small lab space where visitors can get some hands-on experience with DNA purification by purifying DNA from saliva. This feature was quite popular on the opening day of the exhibit, judging from the small crowd of people watching and waiting their turn to isolate their genetic material.

This exhibit runs until September 1, 2014, and I encourage anyone with plans to visit Washington, D.C. to visit the National Museum of Natural History and check out the exhibit for yourself. If such a trip is not in your future, the exhibit will travel throughout North America from the autumn of 2014 to the autumn of 2018. You can also visit the web site at:

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.


  1. Looks like a very cool exhibit! Hopefully it will come through the midwest. Was there any mention anywhere of Rosalind Franklin’s critical contributions to Watson and Crick’s report? I would love to see her acknowledged more often when we talk about the “discovery” of the double helix.

  2. Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix was highlighted in a “Cracking the Code” timeline that started with Miescher’s 1869 discovery of DNA and ended with the publication of the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Encyclopedia of DNA Elements in 2012. Rosalind Franklin’s 1952 point on this timeline reads “Rosalind Franklin captures x-ray images of DNA that lead to understanding its structure” and includes her picture and the famous x-ray diffraction pattern that we’ve all seen dozens of times. The 1953 timepoint readers “James Watson and Francis Crick describe DNA’s double helix.” From this wording, I think Franklin is given as much (or more) credit for the discovery.

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