On a recent hot Sunday afternoon, my eight year old son, Davide, and I left “the girls” (mom and four-year-old daughter) at home to embark on a field trip at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We were going to visit a science exhibit celebrating the tenth anniversary mark of the human genome sequencing.12 It turned out to be one of my best Sundays in quite a while!
The exhibit is a collaboration between the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the 27 NIH Institutes, and the legendary Smithsonian Institution. The result is a display which truly mesmerizes the visitor, or at least that was the effect on my son and myself.
The Genome Within Us covers over 4,000 square-feet of exhibit floor, presenting the human genome and that of many other species while highlighting a few key concepts that the curators clearly want to be the take home message. The show does not inundate the occasional tourist in flip-flops with a flood of notions and terms, rather subliminally sprinkles the visitor with key questions formulated in a clever way, so that child and grownup alike are engaged—Where do we come from? Who are we? Where do we come from? What defines me? And what defines my family and the people around me? What determines health and sickness?
The exhibit presents the natural world with its fascinating diversity, revealing how genomes of living things differ, and yet surprisingly how similar they can be. As a lifelong lab rat, I immediately thought the concepts could have been shown as aligned gene sequences from different species to show homologous regions. Then I would brag about the conservation of the homeodomain and how cool fugu’s genome is because it is so compact. The exhibit itself shows nothing this way but sticks to these same core concepts, illustrated in a highly interactive, high-tech visual manner.
The exhibit opens by illustrating how genomic science changed archeology and paleontology, augmenting knowledge of human origins and helping answer questions about our ancestry. By clicking many buttons, the curious visitor meets people and their genomes, tracks backward to their ancestors and to the continents where their genes came from.
At this point my son asked me, “But so, dad, what does it mean to be American or Japanese?” People who live in those places have genes that come from all over! Are we all the same then?” My son attends a progressive school, called Oneness Family School, where the concepts of oneness are melded to the idea of differences between people to form the core of the education curriculum. Davide is primed to ask these sort of questions, but he was so surprised to find this concept actually written into our genes. We are all one and we are all different is not just simply something we say. It is real. It is written in our cells!
While Davide and I were still pondering genomes and the disparate origin of genes, the exhibit brought us straight into the brave new world of genomic medicine where knowledge of how genomic variants affect disease risk may revolutionize how health is maintained, and how diseases will be treated. And this also segued into presentations on the ethical, legal, and social concerns raised by genomic medicine.
Toward the end of the exhibit, the visitor can take a “genetic wheel” test, which assigns visitors to a bin based on common somatic traits, such as presence of dimples when we smile, the ability to roll up the tongue, and so on. At the end of the array test (not micro or high throughput!), I found myself in a group of people who… surprise, surprise… looked very different from each other though we had been binned together! So, who are we?
Davide was so fascinated by the test that he asked the attendant for two extra copies to take home for mom and sister. Back around the dinner table at home, Davide assigned the test to the rest of the family. It was a great teaching moment, which I am not sure the curators of the exhibit have envisioned.
Davide’s sister, four-year-old Celeste, was adopted at birth and is “African American” (note quotation marks, I’ll come back to this). Celeste does not share the genetics of anyone in our family, yet her scoring on the genetic wheel ended up being closer to mine than to Davide’s. What a surprise for him, positive surprise, that is.
This was to me the perfect entry point to discuss what defines a family, and the fact that there are many ways of forming a family—adopted daughters, foster parents, step sons, same sex parents, etc. Yet we are all so different and so similar based on some traits, but not others. After having observed how genes move around through time and space, what does it mean to say that “I am European,” or “I am African American?” What does it really mean? Hence, my use of quotation marks above. In fact, we all share a great deal in our own species and with other creatures, some as humble as fruit flies. Fundamentally, I find it so much easier to think of who we are based on what we do with what we have, rather than sticking labels identifying neat categories. It seems that nature failed to read our textbook taxonomies.
When I proposed this field trip to Davide, I was greeted with a boooooring chant (I think the teen years are occurring earlier), likely because going meant giving up a Nationals baseball game. When we walked out of the museum, Davide mentioned the exhibit was not as bad as he had feared. Trust me, this was an off-the-chart scoring in my son’s Likert scale. I rarely get close to that with other ideas I float with him!
So thank you, Smithsonian, and thank you, NIH, for putting together such a wonderful exhibit! If the readers of the Activation Energy blog happen to find themselves in DC as tourists or as dapper business people, my recommendation is to make time for a visit to the Genome Within Us exhibit.
While pondering on the life lesson (not just life science!) that our family learned together from the exhibit, I felt energized to continue work on a project which I floated last year at the ASCB Council—a Cell Science Day. It would have talks and demonstrations from scientists, policy makers, celebrities, and patients, all to inaugurate an eye-popping cell science art exhibit. In June, the ASCB Council set aside seed funding for such an event. Stay tuned, more excitement to come in the ASCB genetically diverse yet so similar family!