Sunday, January 19, 2014

Genome: Unlocking Life's Code

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through Setpember 1, 2014

The scientists are out in force, and they've been let loose on visitors to this exhibit on the human genome.  Part of the gallery is set up to allow you to talk to the scientists on duty, but they're also walking about the part of the gallery that's set up with interactive displays, engaging people in conversation and further explaining the information available.

Although this isn't a very large display, it's full of information, only some of which I was intelligent enough to absorb.  In order to really get the full experience, you'd need to spend more than a lunch hour using the many hands-on features.  I skimmed this exhibit, although I did spend a good 40 minutes or so there.  The genome (human or other) is a complex topic, so there's a lot to show.

Scientists can now sequence the complete genome of every living thing on earth, so not just humans, but animals and bacteria - you name it.  In the process of doing this, they've discovered many more species than were known to exist before, and there might be as many as 10 million new species out there that we've yet to find.  It's a dizzying concept.  Humans are more closely related to a variety of other species than you'd think.  I realize we're quite similar to apes, but mice?  jellyfish?  Could have fooled me.  The Smithsonian is involved in genome sequencing; it launched the Global Genome Initiative to coordinate a worldwide network of research organizations working on this massive task.  Makes you realize that the museums on the Mall are just the tip of the Smithsonian iceberg.

Sequencing a human's genome is relatively cheap, about $1,000.  Evaluating the sequence, that's a more expensive proposition - around $10,000.  They're working on bringing the price down as it's not just a sop to idle curiosity.  The genome provides information on the best drugs, and how to evaluate an individual's cancer cells, so as to provide better treatment.

There's one part of the display that I did take time to click through - you choose a family, and decide for each person if they'll have their genome sequenced or not.  Then, you see the consequences of that decision.  It doesn't seem to make a lot of difference whether you do it or not, unless you have a particular disease.  I think we're not at the point where we can make definitive predictions about exactly what conditions a person will face in 10 or 20 years.

A fascinating fact that I learned in this exhibit is that 99.9% of each person's genome is exactly alike.  I try to remember that when I'm watching people on the Metro - as different as they look, we're almost entirely the same.

Verdict: Worth a visit, but probably more satisfying if you have more than a lunch hour. 

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