- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The secret of life always has been a mystery. With the completion of the Human Genome Project, which provides a map of a person’s entire set of genes, the enigma has begun to unravel.

The Smithsonian Institution attempts to explain what it all means in its exhibit, “Genome: The Secret of How Life Works,” a new 15-city, five-year traveling exhibit that gives an interactive look at the human genome. It will be on display at the Arts and Industries Building in Southwest through Jan. 4.

“Genes are the recipes for life,” says Peter Radestsky, content developer at Clear Channel Exhibitions in San Antonio, which created the Smithsonian exhibit. “It’s like making bread. You need recipe ingredients and the bread maker.”

Most of the information presented in the exhibit is a result of the completion of the Human Genome Project. Begun in 1990, the program was a 13-year effort coordinated by the Energy Department in Southwest and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

In the nucleus of each human cell are genes, hereditary units composed of a sequence of DNA. Genes hold the information needed to create the proteins required by all types of living creatures. These proteins determine how the organism looks, how well its body metabolizes food or fights infection, and how it behaves.

Many of these genes are found on chromosomes, which are bodies inside cell nuclei. Through this project, scientists sought to understand the human genome, which consists of all the DNA in the genes of an organism.

Along with identifying the approximate 30,000 genes in human DNA, scientists in the Human Genome Project also wanted to determine the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA. DNA is made up of four similar chemicals — adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine — which are abbreviated A, T, C and G.

Even though only four chemicals are involved, the order of the A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s determines the type of life. For instance, while humans share 99.9 percent of the same DNA with each other, they also have 50 percent of the same DNA as a banana.

To get across the complicated information about the Human Genome Project to children and adults, the exhibit showcases specific learning tools, such as a giant double helix, an 8-foot-tall, 25-foot-long display of DNA’s two spiraling strands.

Other activities in the exhibit include hereditary slot machines, which demonstrate the odds that children will inherit genes for certain characteristics. A cookie factory helps explain the process of genes’ protein production. And to meet the scientists involved in sequencing the human genome, participants can watch a film in the exhibit’s Discovery Theater.

Thomas G. Turi, who holds a doctorate in molecular genetics, hopes this manner of presenting scientific information will help exhibit visitors understand the human genome. As manager of In Silico Biology in Groton, Conn., Mr. Turi is the scientific adviser for the exhibit.

“We found out that three out of four people had no knowledge whatsoever of the genome,” he says. “They couldn’t even use it in a sentence.”

But since the information found in the human genome has the potential to revolutionize health care in the future, it’s an important concept to understand.

“Now that the human genome is completed … we’re trying to understand how each of those genes participate in the disease process,” he says. “Then, we can pinpoint with accuracy which compound will be the most beneficial and safest drug we can make.”

Mapping the human genome sequence is really just the beginning. Right now, the scientific community is only starting to understand what genes trigger which diseases and how the environment affects individuals.

“It’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics, and we’re trying to decode it,” says Christopher Austin, senior adviser to the director for translational research at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda.

Specifically, researchers are now studying the 0.1 percent of DNA that differs from human to human. Scientists want to know where the sequences are the same and where they are different. Also, although researchers have recognized many genes on chromosomes, they still have a lot of work to do to pinpoint where genes are located in cells, especially because not all genes look alike.

As the public understands the possible positive consequences of increasing research about the human genome, scientists hope they will want to invest money in the endeavors, says Eric Lander, who holds a doctorate in mathematics. He is the director of the Whitehead-MIT Center for Genome Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to unravel the basis of most common disease,” he says. “We won’t cure these diseases this year or the year after, but we do this work every day so that our kids will have better health.”

The possibility of cloning a human being does not worry Mr. Lander. He says genomics is not about cloning, but understanding the mechanisms that produce health. He believes it is unlikely that people will adopt cloning as the reproductive method of choice.

“It’s not as fun as the alternative,” he says. “It doesn’t solve any problem. Why would you want to? I don’t see market pressure for cloning. … Even for parents who would want to clone a child who has died, DNA doesn’t make the whole child.”

Mr. Lander is concerned, however, about the possibility of people’s privacy being threatened by genetic testing, which could provide insurance companies with the list of diseases to which individuals are predisposed.

“We could make great discoveries about science, but still fail to serve the country if we don’t put in place protections for the information,” he says. “We need protections against the disclosure of the information to someone other than the patient.”

Besides advances in health care, the information acquired through the Human Genome Project is important for other reasons, says Ari Patrinos, director of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Office of Science at the Energy Department.

As a result of the Human Genome Project, scientists learned more about how microbes and microbial communities work. They are in the process of sequencing their genome. When researchers understand how microbes function, they will be able to put them to work.

For instance, microbes, single-cell organisms with an average size of about 25,000ths of an inch, might be used to clean up contaminated nuclear weapons sites, provide alternative energy sources by creating hydrogen, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere to prevent pollution. They may be able to complete these tasks because they can withstand extreme environments where multicellular creatures cannot exist.

To process all of the information that is being gathered, Mr. Patrinos says the Energy Department will need to work with its colleagues in the computational sciences.

“The Human Genome Project forced science communities to work together,” Mr. Patrinos says. “If one looks to the future, all the major research activities will require this type of synergy and cooperation.”

For more information about the exhibit, contact the Smithsonian Web site (www.si.edu/exhibitions/).

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