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The apotheosis of the double helix

Exhibition unveils DNA, from biodiversity up to the cell's nucleus


The Genome Revolution Exhibition, held in 2001 at the New York Museum of Natural History, is now being shown in Brazil. Over 800 thousand people in the US, China and New Zealand have visited the exhibition and it will be open for visitors until July 13 at the newly renovated Armando Arruda Pereira Pavilion at Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. The Sangari Institute, which brought the exhibition to Brazil, expects over 500 thousand visitors from the city of São Paulo alone. The exhibition will also be taken to several other Brazilian cities – as was the case with the “Discover Darwin” exhibition, also brought by the Sangari Institute, which can be seen until April at the Museu Histórico Nacional (National History Museum) in Rio de Janeiro, after three months in São Paulo.

Spread over a two thousand sq. m area, the original exhibition bas been adapted in Brazil. In the first three sections, called Great DNA Room, visitors enter an environment full of live plants and animals, kept inside glass walls intertwined with TV screens with flora and fauna images. “We were able to bring more live wild animals to the exhibition than initially expected, such as tamarins, toucans, tarantulas and boa constrictors, which significantly attract younger audiences,” says Bianca Rinzler, executive director of the Sangari Institute. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge, one of the curators of the New York Museum of National History, says he is highly impressed by the Brazilian contribution. “The importance of biodiversity associated with the genomic revolution made the Brazilian exhibition unique,” he said. In the next section, stuffed animals share the area with drawings about Brazilian biodiversity, by German botanist Carl von Martius (1794-1868). The section has a projection of images showing that DNA is found in humans as well as in plants and amphibians – the idea that DNA is behind everything, the theme of the exhibition itself – and ends in a huge dome that simulates a cell’s insides.

The exhibition has two other large sections: the Genome Era, on genetic concepts and diseases, and Food Genetics, on the importance of genomic studies for agriculture and transgenic foods. The entire exhibition is interactive. In one device, visitors’ faces are photographed and projected on a large screen, with the subtitle “human”. Beside it is a screen with a picture of another species, such as a chimpanzee, a fish or even a rodent. In a matter of seconds, the visitor reads the percentage of genes of this specie in human beings. An installation shaped as a double helix invites the visitor to touch it. In the background, there is a fly projected on a screen. In a  game of trial and error, one must touch certain points of the structure until DNA points capable of hosting anomaly-producing genetic mutations are found – which include a change in the fly’s color, the atrophy of its wings or the appearance of a new limb. Children are invited to take part in an  experiment to extract DNA from strawberries

Organizers were concerned about making the exhibition’s content more accessible to Brazilian audiences. Mônica Teixeira, one of the curators, took five months to adapt the US exhibition’s texts and to add new ones, such as those on DNA chips, the fragile X chromosome syndrome and muscular dystrophy, in addition to content on crops such as coffee, sugarcane, soy and orange, which were not in the original exhibition. “It was undoubtedly the most complex and hardest part of the job,” says Mônica.

Sitting on the bench
The selection of guides for the visitors and public school students was very strict. 50 out of  220 candidates were chosen – but only 25 will actually work at the exhibition. The others will be “benched” and called, in the event of absences or resignations. Although all monitors are biology students, they had nine hours of theoretical lectures and another nine hours of training in mediation. “They must be prepared to answer each target group in the right sort of tone,” explains Eliana Dessen, a geneticist from the University of São Paulo and co-curator of the exhibition.

Concurrently with the exhibition, two cycles of lectures on genome studies and scientific issues, organized by Pesquisa FAPESP, will be held at the Armando Arruda Pereira Pavilion until July. The cycle “Genome Studies: Modeling Twenty-First Century Biology” will have lectures by experts such as Oliver Smithies, 2007 Medicine Nobel Prize winner; Alan Templeton, a biologist from the University of Michigan; Jane Gitschier, a physician and biologist from the University of California at San Francisco; Fernando Reinach, a researcher at USP and director of Votorantim Novos Negócios; Jan Hoeijmakers, from Erasmus University, in Rotterdam, who studies the molecular basis of aging; Robin Buell, a biologist from the Michigan State University; and Wen-Hsiung Li, from the University of Chicago. The second cycle, “20th Century Sciences and the New Frontiers of Knowledge in the 21st Century” will have lecturers such as neuroscientists Miguel Nicolelis, Esper Cavalheiro and Sidarta Ribeiro, physicists José Fernando Perez and Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP scientific director, parasitologist Luiz Hildebrando Pereira, botanist Carlos Joly, archeologist Niéde Guidon, psychiatrist Mario Costa Pereira, journalist and sociologist Muniz Sodré and meteorologist Carlos Nobre.

After the Genome Revolution exhibition, the Sangari Institute plans to bring new attractions from the New York Museum of National History to Ibirapuera Park, such as the exhibitions on Albert Einstein, Water (currently being shown in the US) and Dinosaurs.