© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Genome exhibit unlocks mysteries of DNA

Photo courtesy St. Louis Science Center

By Julie Bierach, KWMU


SAINT LOUIS, MO – A new interactive exhibit is opening at the St. Louis Science Center on Saturday that explores the science of DNA. Featuring a giant double helix model shaped like a twisted ladder, it unveils the mysteries of why the genome is being mapped.

On the lower level of the St. Louis Science Center, a group of students from Compton-Drew Middle School are learning about DNA. Amid the sounds of hammers putting the finishing touches on the exhibit, their vice-principal Fred Haliburton tells me it's a subject they're learning a lot about in school.

For most kids learning about genetic science from a textbook can be boring. But today, these students are having a lot of fun. Their gathered around an interactive display called the "Unzip, Zip." Their trying to mimic the copying process of DNA by connecting the bases of a DNA ladder with blocks. A- bases fasten only to the Ts and Cs fasten only to G's and they only have 60 seconds to complete it.

That's just one display in the exhibit called, Genome: The Secret of How Life Works. Dr. Cindy Encarnacion is the Associate Director of Life Sciences at the St. Louis Science Center, "A lot of the exhibit has to do with basic concepts that relate to genetics. So, it talks about the structure of the DNA molecule, what DNA does in your body and also the environment in which DNA works, which is in the cell."

The exhibit also chronicles the 200-year history of genome science. There are displays about Gregor Mendel who discovered the rules of inheritance by cultivating peas and Francis Crick who discovered the famous DNA double helix in the 1950's.

It also shows how much humans are like or unlike other organisms, "So there's a comparison of what percentages of our genome, or that's the collection of all our genetic information, is similar to other organisms like yeast, the fruit fly, the chimpanzee, a banana for instance. And we say for sure that we are more like bananas than we are like yeasts," said Encarnacion.

Actually we share 50-percent of our DNA with a banana. Now that's a hard thing for some students to believe. Their mostly interested in finding out how they got here and how they inherited their physical traits, like their dimples or hair color.

One feature explains just that. A video describes how our genetic makeup first begins, in the womb, where 23 pairs of chromosomes create the first complete cell with all the genetic instructions needed to grow into a baby. And that one cell makes stem cells.

After watching the video, 12 year-old Keiara Watkins strays from the group. She's at a machine called the "Heredity Slots." It explains that genes influence the traits that we inherit from our parents or grandparents in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

"It's like a slot machine you pull the lever to see then you wait. It says genes come in pairs half from each of your biological parents. So it says pull the lever. Some traits like dimples are the result of single pair of genes. Pull the lever again. Can you guess the result of this gene pair," said Watkins.

The purpose of the Genome exhibit is not only to educate students about DNA, but the St. Louis Science Center is also trying to bring to focus the life science research efforts in the St. Louis region. They want the kids to know that a lot of DNA and biotech research is happening right here in their own backyard helping shape the future of medicine and food production.

This project is made possible with support from The DNA Files, a project of SoundVision Productions starting October 30th at 8 pm on KWMU.

For more information about the Genome exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center visit www.slsc.org. Find out more about the exhibit.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.