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Go see the new Genome Exhibit at the Smithsonian

Looking for something to do with the family this summer? Washington DC is always a good idea with so many enlightening family-oriented exhibits to see. But for all of you science geeks, it just got better with the opening of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum – Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code. It celebrates the 10th anniversary of the original draft sequence of the human genome and I had the pleasure of touring the exhibit on opening day, Friday June 14. It’s right upstairs on the 2nd floor of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum next to the Hope Diamond.

The Genome exhibit is well organized, covering about 5,000 square feet and as you might expect is tailored for audiences of all ages. One goal is to educate the general public on basic understanding of DNA, genomes, and implications for how sequencing information can be leveraged in a number of areas. Topics range from how DNA sequencing has identified new species of plants and animals to the utility in human health and wellness. It is full of interactive stations, for example, one where you play detective and use DNA clues to solve the mystery of which bird species flew into a jet engine causing it to crash, using tissue recovered from the wreckage. Another station collects your thoughts on the trade offs of using genomic information for improved medical health versus the potential loss of personal privacy. There are several fascinating video stations as well. One station features short interviews with leaders from the Human Genome Sequencing Project such as Francis Collins, Eric Lander, and Craig Venter. Another offers digital short stories told by cancer and cystic fibrosis patients explaining how sequencing of their genome helped save their lives by identifying novel mutations that could be targeted for effective treatment. At the end of the exhibit there is even a lab station where visitors can roll up their sleeves and extract DNA.

The exhibit was funded by organizations and individuals well-known to most of you, such as Life Technology, Affymetrix, 23 & Me, Pacific Biosystems and by Mike & Beth Hunkapiller, among others. Two Next Gen Sequencing platforms – Ion Torrent and Oxford Nanopore – were on display. There were no videos of the lively exchanges between Francis Collins of the NIH and Craig Venter of Celera during the genome sequence race, but you can get a little bit more of a feel for the tensions and competition in the human genome sequencing race by reading, Cracking the Genome by Ken Davies, if you are interested. Serendipitously, Battelle’s Technology Practice just released a report that examines the impact of the human genome project – ” How a $3.8 billion investment drove $796 billion in economic impact, created 310,00 jobs and launched the genomic revolution”.

Hopefully I am not dating myself too much, but it was delightful to see how far we have come from gel based automated sequencers in the 1980’s to the latest systems with impressive automation and throughput. It is also gratifying to see how that has fueled the extension of sequencing efforts from the confines of academic research labs 20-30 years ago, to public and privately funded efforts to truly and fundamentally change the way we think about patient care, agriculture and new energy sources. If the Smithsonian were to ask me for my opinion (I am not holding my breath), I think they should start planning exhibits for Synthetic Biology and hopefully the outcomes of The Brain Project in the coming decade. I think these areas, and many others, are on the verge of making similar transformative changes to the way we live our lives.

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