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Genetics: Decoding Life Exhibit - 2002-01-12


Cloned mice, beetle-resistant potato plants, and the use of DNA as evidence in criminal investigations are all possible because of genetics, a science which examines origin, development and heredity.

In the Midwest U.S. city of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry has just opened what it calls the nation's first permanent genetics exhibit.

The exhibit, "Genetics: Decoding Life" is 650 square meters of live animals, interactive computer displays and thought-provoking questions about what makes living beings develop, and what scientists can do with what they've learned. In the "cloning" section of the exhibit, a video explains various reasons why animals are cloned. It explains that "Dolly," the world's first cloned sheep, was part of an effort to reproduce animals that had been genetically altered to produce human proteins in their milk.

The museum's exhibit developer, Patricia Ward, says in addition to cloning, the exhibit focuses on development, mutations, genetic engineering and the human genome. "When we were starting to develop the exhibit, we went out to the public and did focus group evaluation and interviewed people and asked what they were interested in, what they wanted to know and what they thought was important," she says. "We used that information to help us delineate what the concepts were going to be that we present in the exhibit. We found that they were interesting in things like cloning, genetic engineering, finding about what the science was about behind those topics."

Genes are tiny bits of chemical instructions located on the chromosomes of living beings. They control a variety of things ranging from height to eye color to susceptibility for illness.

Cloned sheep and stem-cell research are genetics-related topics that lots of people hear about, but not many understand well. "Genetics is a really abstract subject; you can not see it. It is very tiny stuff. Even though it is a part of all of us, it essentially is important to all of us because it is our lives; you can not see it so it is really hard to bring it to life," she says.

The Museum of Science uses mice, frogs, fruit flies and baby chicks in its exhibit to illustrate how genetics works. A chick hatchery is used to explain embryonic development, and gives visitors a chance to see chicks break out of their shells.

A video and small frog pond help explain genetic engineering. The frogs in this display have eyes that glow.

Ms. Ward says researchers use genetic engineering of this type to help them understand how human eyes develop, and how certain genes turn on and off during development. Scientists can use this to visibly watch during development of the tadpole through its various stages, when certain genes are turning on to begin the development of the lens of the eye," she says.

The section on cloning introduces visitors to cloned mice, and explains how genetic information - or DNA - is transferred from one mouse to another's eggs to make a clone.

Advancements in genetics research has led some people to predict that human cloning might be possible in the near future, but is that a good idea?

Ms. Ward says the cloning section of the exhibit, along with the others, asks visitors for their opinions on controversial issues like cloning or genetic engineering. "Over here, people can role-play being a genetic counselor and explore some of the different issues involved surrounding genetic testing. It is one of those very complex areas in which there are no simple answers," she says. "People have all kinds of different reactions about whether they want to be tested for any given genetic disease and what would they do with that information if they had it?"

Ms. Ward hopes the exhibit helps people better understand an area of science that fascinates many people, while frightening others. "Our role is to interpret the science for the public and provide a strong foundation for visitors to go and explore individual topics that they might be more interested in and come to some conclusions for themselves," she says.

The Museum of Science and Industry also hopes to stimulate discussion of genetics by hosting a three-part symposium with the nearby University of Chicago. Each session will feature experts talking about the science behind new genetic breakthroughs.