Tucked inside our teeny-tiny cells is the key to all human biology: the genome. The genes that make up our genomes encode everything from the color of our eyes to whether or not we are intolerant to lactose. Though each of our genomes hold specific quirks that contribute to variations in appearance and health, all humans share nearly 99.9% of the same genes.
Now, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History can unlock the mysteries and explore the complexities of humans’ shared genetics in the exhibit “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.” The interactive experience, a partnership between the museum and the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health, leads visitors through the breakthroughs that have taken place since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.
The exhibition opened at the museum in 2013 before touring North America for six years, connecting audiences to breakthroughs and advancements in the genomic revolution. It returned to the museum this year on Oct. 21, at a time when scientists say genomics is more important than ever.
“Climate change is driving stressors on ecosystems and endangered species,” said Jonathan Coddington, director of the Global Genome Initiative, senior research entomologist and curator at the museum. “In order for us to mitigate these impacts, we need to be able to monitor ecosystems and see whether species diversity is going up and down. And we're doing that increasingly through genomics.”
In the 1990’s, a global team of scientists joined forces to sequence the human genome. This herculean effort found where certain genes are located on our chromosomes and mapped how inherited traits are passed from generation to generation. The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 and revealed that our 23 chromosome duos contain about 3 billion pairs of DNA bases and at least 46,000 different genes.
Since then, genomics research and technology has exploded. At-home genetic ancestry and health testing kits are available for under $100, researchers have developed disease therapies precisely targeting a patient’s genes and anthropologists have learned more about the evolution of Homo sapiens.
The Smithsonian has been at the forefront of this charge leading the Global Genome Initiative, which aims to “understand and preserve the genomic diversity of life,” Coddington said. The program has mobilized over three million genetic samples of species all over the world, involving 100 institutions in over 37 countries. “We’ve also funded over 300 genomic projects,” with a particular emphasis on species “about which nothing is known genomically,” he said.
Visitors to “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code,” which will be open until summer 2022, will explore how the Smithsonian is doing this work, as well as how the genome is a part of their own bodies and can help tell the human story. The exhibit features 3-D models, animations, videos of real-life stories and interactive experiences.
For gene-curious audiences who can’t visit the exhibit in person, the museum also created a “DIY” version of the exhibition that is free to print and is available in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Simplified and Traditional Chinese. “Genome DIY” includes graphic panels and interactive media and can be displayed in libraries, community centers, hospitals, and other venues to reach audiences where they are.
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