Sunday, May 27, 2001
New York What is a pair of golden shoes doing in an exhibit about genes? What do three towering stacks of phone books have to do with the human DNA?
It's all part of an ambitious show, "The Genomic Revolution," at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibit takes a comprehensive look at what scientists have been discovering about genes and DNA, and what it all means to the rest of us.
So, for example, visitors gazing at the stacks of phone books ï¿½ 140 in all ï¿½ discover that if one adds up every letter and digit in all those books, it would equal the 3.2 billion building blocks that make up a person's DNA.
And while contemplating golden shoes worn by Olympic runner Michael Johnson, they learn that genes and environment both affect athletic and musical talent, as well as aging.
As visitors wind their way through the darkened hall, they pass by brightly lighted wall displays, videos and other exhibits. One video, for example, basically unwinds a chromosome ï¿½ it starts out looking like a bulging "X" ï¿½ and focuses on a gene. Then it shows how information from the gene is used to make a protein.
At another display, visitors can choose a plant or animal for a DNA comparison. Suddenly, the visitors see a picture of themselves placed next to an image of the chosen organism ï¿½ as they find out that they and a chimp, for example, share 98 percent of their genes. Even for a tiny worm, the figure is 21 percent.
And any two unrelated people staring at the exhibit share 99.9 percent of their genetic makeup.
Other displays go beyond basic biology to explore what genetic research means for society. One brief video tells about two sisters whose mother died of breast cancer. They decide to find out whether they carry a genetic flaw that would raise their risk of that disease. Another video tells of a heart attack patient who had copies of a gene inserted into his heart so it would make new blood vessels ï¿½ a grow-it-yourself bypass.
The exhibition is not shy about declaring the wonders of gene technology. In the next century, visitors are told, some common surgeries may be rendered obsolete, parents may be able to choose traits such as eye color in their children, endangered species may be cloned and propagated, and many cancers may be eliminated. At the same time, the exhibition raises questions about where all this is leading.