Explore-At-Bristol Looks Inside DNA And The Genomic Revolution

By Caroline Lewis | 28 November 2007
photo of part of the exhibition with two adults looking at an interactive screen

© Wellcome Trust

Would you want to know if you were genetically predisposed to certain diseases?

A new exhibition at science centre At-Bristol is asking the public to think about the questions posed by new technologies, all made possible by the flurry of advances in genetics research. The answers are being fed back to policymakers, with the chance that informed public opinion may influence ethical decisions.

Inside DNA: A Genomic Revolution aims to challenge current perceptions of genome research, and is the first major exhibition of its kind. The £1.5million combination of interactive exhibits and event programmes has been funded by the Wellcome Trust and developed by At-Bristol with scientific support from the world renowned Sanger Institute.

Over the next five years, visitors to Inside DNA will be able to find out about the research and opinions of leading scientists in the UK working on the rapidly advancing field of genomic science in health, identity and evolution.

“The arrival of this touring exhibition could not have come at a more appropriate time,” said Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Welcome Trust. “Scientific breakthroughs in the field of genetics are constantly under scrutiny from an eager public, wanting to find out more about their own health and how genes affect our susceptibility to certain diseases.”

The exhibition looks at the nature of DNA and genetic mutations, the application of genetics research to forensics, the potential of our contemporary knowledge of genetics in treating disease, and how humans evolved. It’s a very topical subject area, with increasingly available technologies such as embryo selection and over-the-counter genetic tests posing difficult choices.

A dialogue zone asks for visitors’ views on the ethical issues raised by each area of genetics research and application. For example, should the National DNA database store everyone’s genetic information on it, and should anyone apart from the police be able to access it? Who should be offered predictive genetic tests, such as for breast cancer? Should individuals be held responsible for diseases they failed to avoid by ignoring lifestyle recommendations?

Answers on topics currently being discussed by the government’s advisory body, the Human Genetics Commission, will be compiled for the Commission to consider.

photo of the exhibition with skeletons of a human and primates

© Wellcome Trust

Contributors to the exhibition include eminent scientist John Souter, who won a Nobel Prize for his team’s work on sequencing almost one-third of the human genome, and former prime minister Tony Blair.

“Inside DNA will provide an experience of genomics to match the excitement of the research,” said Bronwyn Terrill, Communication and Public Engagement Manager at the Wellcome Trust. “An engaged public is vital it we, as a society, are to make the best use of information generated by genomic research.”

The accessible and neutral project is designed to help people make informed opinions about how we use genetics research, and is unusual for a science centre exhibition in that it caters more to an adult audience than children, pointed out Goéry Delacôte, Chief Executive of At-Bristol and Executive Director of Inside DNA’s project board.

“The set-up of the project also demonstrates an effective model of science centres leveraging one another’s strengths and collaborating as a network,” he said. (The exhibition is the result of a partnership between At-Bristol and Ecsite-UK, the UK network of science centres and museums.)

“At-Bristol is proud to be at the forefront of this project, which breaks the frontier of science communication, and be part of this genomic revolution.”

The events kick off with a major debate, The Future of Genomics, taking place on November 29 2007 and involving more than 300 individuals from the lay public to leading scientists and ethicists. Chaired by Dr Alice Roberts from the University of Bristol, and presenter on the BBC2 series Coast. The ticketed event takes place at Explore-at-Bristol from 6pm.

Inside DNA will run at Explore-At-Bristol until September 2 2008, after which it will go on show at the Centre for Life, Newcastle, and then Glasgow Science Centre (from March 2009). An accompanying website is online at www.insidedna.org.uk.

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