Unlocking Life's Code; Exhibit Explains Human Genome

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 12, 2003 | Go to article overview

Unlocking Life's Code; Exhibit Explains Human Genome


Byline: Jen Waters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The secret of life always has been a mystery. With the completion of the Human Genome Project, which provides a map of a person's entire set of genes, the enigma has begun to unravel.

The Smithsonian Institution attempts to explain what it all means in its exhibit, "Genome: The Secret of How Life Works," a new 15-city, five-year traveling exhibit that gives an interactive look at the human genome. It will be on display at the Arts and Industries Building in Southwest through Jan. 4.

"Genes are the recipes for life," says Peter Radestsky, content developer at Clear Channel Exhibitions in San Antonio, which created the Smithsonian exhibit. "It's like making bread. You need recipe ingredients and the bread maker."

Most of the information presented in the exhibit is a result of the completion of the Human Genome Project. Begun in 1990, the program was a 13-year effort coordinated by the Energy Department in Southwest and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

In the nucleus of each human cell are genes, hereditary units composed of a sequence of DNA. Genes hold the information needed to create the proteins required by all types of living creatures. These proteins determine how the organism looks, how well its body metabolizes food or fights infection, and how it behaves.

Many of these genes are found on chromosomes, which are bodies inside cell nuclei. Through this project, scientists sought to understand the human genome, which consists of all the DNA in the genes of an organism.

Along with identifying the approximate 30,000 genes in human DNA, scientists in the Human Genome Project also wanted to determine the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA. DNA is made up of four similar chemicals - adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine - which are abbreviated A, T, C and G.

Even though only four chemicals are involved, the order of the A's, T's, C's, and G's determines the type of life. For instance, while humans share 99.9 percent of the same DNA with each other, they also have 50 percent of the same DNA as a banana.

To get across the complicated information about the Human Genome Project to children and adults, the exhibit showcases specific learning tools, such as a giant double helix, an 8-foot-tall, 25-foot-long display of DNA's two spiraling strands.

Other activities in the exhibit include hereditary slot machines, which demonstrate the odds that children will inherit genes for certain characteristics. A cookie factory helps explain the process of genes' protein production. And to meet the scientists involved in sequencing the human genome, participants can watch a film in the exhibit's Discovery Theater.

Thomas G. Turi, who holds a doctorate in molecular genetics, hopes this manner of presenting scientific information will help exhibit visitors understand the human genome. As manager of In Silico Biology in Groton, Conn., Mr. Turi is the scientific adviser for the exhibit.

"We found out that three out of four people had no knowledge whatsoever of the genome," he says. "They couldn't even use it in a sentence."

But since the information found in the human genome has the potential to revolutionize health care in the future, it's an important concept to understand.

"Now that the human genome is completed ... we're trying to understand how each of those genes participate in the disease process," he says. "Then, we can pinpoint with accuracy which compound will be the most beneficial and safest drug we can make."

Mapping the human genome sequence is really just the beginning. Right now, the scientific community is only starting to understand what genes trigger which diseases and how the environment affects individuals.

"It's like Egyptian hieroglyphics, and we're trying to decode it," says Christopher Austin, senior adviser to the director for translational research at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda. …

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