WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is developing its first major exhibit on the human genome with a $3 million pledge announced Monday from a biotechnology company.
The philanthropic foundation of Life Technologies Corp. is the lead sponsor for a 2,500-square-foot exhibition slated to open on the National Mall in June 2013.
The museum will collaborate with the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health to develop a high-tech presentation of the history and future of genome sciences. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health also raised $500,000 for the project.
The effort marks the 10th anniversary of researchers producing the first complete human genome sequence as a blueprint of the human body. The Human Genome Project was launched as an international effort in 1990 to better understand the genetic impact on health and disease.
Elizabeth Duggal, the museum's associate director for public programs, said most people probably don't know how quickly genomic science has advanced since then and how much of an impact it can have on their lives.
"Genetic research is probably one of the most important components of the 21st century in terms of life science advances," she said.
Carlsbad, Calif.-based Life Technologies recently announced it has developed a machine to decode an individual's DNA in a day for $1,000. The cost of sequencing DNA has tumbled since the first sequencing of the basic human genome was announced at the White House in 2000.
Reaching the $1,000 target is considered a key step in making the technique more accessible and practical for doctors to use to help their patents by revealing vulnerabilities or tailoring medical treatments.
"What science has taught us about genomics in the last 10 years will undoubtedly be dwarfed by the revolutionary advancements to come," Gregory Lucier, chairman and CEO of Life Technologies, said in a statement.
The museum also plans to delve into ethical questions that arise with advancements in genetic science.
Curators will ask visitors their thoughts on whether to find out about prenatal health issues or risks their children may face. In some cases, treatment can begin for a genetic defect before symptoms ever develop to dramatically improve the lives of those children.
Knowing more about the latest research can empower visitors and get them thinking about how their own choices can impact their genome.
"I think all of us know someone who maybe has cancer or diabetes and how those things can be looked at from both a genetic and environmental factor," Duggal said.
Genetic research also is part of the museum's future. It recently built the world's largest natural history biorepository with 24 liquid nitrogen tanks and 58 freezers to store animal DNA, RNA and tissue samples, and it is planning a genomics research lab on the National Mall, said Dr. Jonathan Coddington, the museum's associate director for research.
"So we're thinking about becoming a museum of genomes," he said. "We'll still be the old fashioned museum we've always been, but we'll add to that genomics."
The human genome exhibit will be open at least a year in Washington before traveling nationally and internationally.
National Museum of Natural History: http://www.mnh.si.edu/
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