Gems and Genomics

An interactive exhibit set to tour the country explores the flawed and fascinating structure that is the human genome.

Every summer, legions of tourists flock to Washington, D.C., to tour the famous monuments, museums, and attractions in the nation’s capital. Many will queue to view one of the world’s great treasures, the 45-carat Hope Diamond, exalted for its rare color and perfection, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH).

Just around the corner from this gem is a 1-year-old exhibit that celebrates an equally priceless heirloom. Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code is a thoroughly enjoyable and educational interactive display developed by the Smithsonian in collaboration with researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Unlike the sparkling blue diamond next door, our genome is far from perfect — replete with flaws and glitches that render all of us susceptible to one disease or another. But these same variants buried in our DNA also account for the astonishing physical and behavioral variation seen across the world’s population. Both are on display at the Smithsonian.

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code opened in June 2013, a fitting monument to mark the 10-year anniversary of the official completion of the Human Genome Project, not to mention the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Credit for the exhibition goes to Eric Green, who succeeded Francis Collins as the director of the NHGRI, the institute at the National Institutes of Health that spearheaded the Human Genome Project. The idea of collaborating with the Smithsonian to help educate the public about the excitement and implications of genome discovery was, in retrospect, so obvious it had escaped everyone’s attention for years. Green partnered with Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough and NMNH leadership to create an exhibit and accompanying public program that successfully engage all visitors — expert and novice alike.

The opening gala last June attracted hundreds of guests, including Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health. Guests of honor included the Beery family. Twins Noah Beery and Alexis Beery had their genomes decoded by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in 2011 to solve a mysterious neurological disorder that had afflicted them since childhood. The twins received a standing ovation and chatted with guests long into the evening. Exhibit visitors can see the Beery family’s saga told in one of several video testimonials.

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code is a relatively small exhibit at 4,400 square feet. The Smithsonian estimates that more than 2 million people have viewed the exhibit, and when I visited recently, I was impressed at the mix of visitors, especially the children and young people. There were plenty of buttons to press, levers to pull, and videos to watch to keep people of all ages interested.

The exhibit excels at laying out some of the medical and ethical dilemmas we might well face in an era of ever-cheaper genome sequencing. “Soon it will cost $1,000 or less to decode your genome, no more than many other common medical tests,” one panel notes. Interactive screens invite you to pick through thought-provoking ethical questions. I found I was in a clear 3-to-1 majority voting against any form of genetic discrimination, but the public is much more evenly split on the question of whether society should restrict the sequencing of children’s genomes.

In “Genomics and Family,” users select members of a hypothetical family and weigh the tough choices they might confront about the genetics of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease and how that might impact their family members. But the curators didn’t lose their sense of humor. One subject faces a particularly difficult quandary — whether to accuse the neighbors’ dog of defecating in his yard. No spoilers!

The exhibit excels at laying out some of the medical and ethical dilemmas we might well face in an era of ever-cheaper genome sequencing.

But the exhibit is about much more than telling personal genome stories. One section puts our genome in evolutionary context. A series of sand jars compares the genome size of various plants, animals, and other organisms. Astonishingly, the humble amoeba boasts a genome 200 times the size of our paltry 3 billion bases. “Genes for Tweeting and Talking” illustrates the value of studying mutations in other organisms. A mutation in a gene called FOXP2 affects the song of the zebra finch, and mutations in the corresponding gene in our ancestors might have played a role in the evolution of speech.

Some of the best interactive displays dwell on more recent evolutionary timelines, notably the exodus of human populations out of Africa over the past 200,000 years, spreading across Asia and eventually migrating across the Bering Strait about 35,000 years ago. Our African origins are further explored in an exhibit that asks: “Are You Part Neanderthal?” Some people of European and Asian descent almost certainly are. And in “You’re a Superorganism,” we learn about the microbiome — the trillions of bacteria living on and inside our bodies that govern so much about our health.

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., until the end of August, at which point it heads on the road. Go here to see the exhibit’s traveling schedule.

Exhibits like this one play an important role in educating the public about the growing importance of genetics in medicine and instilling enthusiasm for learning in the younger generation. As I perused the exhibit, I thought about the many genetics-related headlines in the news that week — a gene therapy breakthrough, a gene patent lawsuit, the father who sequenced the genome of his unborn child.

As I walked out into the D.C. sunshine, I reflected on the many fascinating angles the Smithsonian exhibit had shone upon the genome. Much like the exquisitely cut blue gem next door.