Tales of Baffling Biotech: A Critical Review
by Judy Cheng
As you pass the grand, sun-lit atrium of the Boston Science Museum, it takes a second for your eyes to readjust to the dimly lit room adjoining it. Your eyes are instantly drawn to the floor-to-ceiling model of DNA, and you realize that this must be the biotechnology exhibit that you've been looking for. You've heard so much in high school biology about new research methods to treat cancer. In the news, you've heard ambiguous reviews about genetically engineered fruit. And unless you've been living under a rock, you've also read about the possibility of engineering “ideal” babies. And now, at the museum, you're excited that there are actually exhibits that address these issues. Perhaps you'll finally get a solid, basic understanding of those concepts. But alas, with their vague explanations, poor organization, and confusing interactive games, the exhibits fall short of your expectations.
For a museum that is intended for a broad audience, the exhibit “Tales of Biotech” is surprisingly presumptuous about the audience's knowledge. In explaining novel methods of genetic rescue, it casually mentions the use of viruses to deliver a “saving gene.” A red light instantly goes off in your head. Since when can viruses, which are frequently the culprits in causing colds and diseases, be used to cure illnesses? It goes against common-sense, yet there is no explanation to clarify this conundrum. You move on to the next panel, hoping to find more insight, only to be met with an entirely different topic with a similarly scanty explanation. This section addresses methods of regenerating bone tissue after common accidents with a skateboard or bicycle. While identifying BMP-2 as the protein that generates bone tissue, it says nothing about why BMP-2 is a cure for broken bones. The museum assumes that the audience knows how BMP-2 can be used to heal bones. It leaves visitors feeling inadequate because they aren't able to put 2 and 2 together. Granted, a more thorough explanation of the methods may become overly technical and confusing. But in this case, a little more explanation would be pivotal in raising the topic's comprehensibility level.
Is information accurate?
It is clear that the designers of the exhibit devoted much thought to rendering complicated concepts accessible to visitors of various ages and backgrounds. For the most part, their time and hard work paid off. Kids are drawn to the exhibits and are interested in the descriptions. However, sometimes their explanations are so oversimplified that they lead to inaccuracies. For example, in the cancer treatment panel, a one-sentence excerpt is taken from a research paper and is mounted on a plaque. It states, “Cancer cells glow red when they are making new proteins.” This statement is inaccurate by itself. As a Biology major with research experience in cells, I have observed that cells only appear a certain color if they are stained, or if one of the cell's genes is fused to a man-made gene that encodes a color protein. This one-liner about cancer cells glowing red followed by a picture of red cells misleads the public. Perhaps the explanation could be improved by framing the sentence in context with the research paper, by adding, “When stained with red dye, growing cancer cells glow red.” Or alternatively, “When fused to red fluorescent protein, growing cancer cells glow red.”
The museum assumes that the audience knows how BMP-2 can be used to heal bones. It leaves visitors feeling inadequate because they aren't able to put 2 and 2 together.
The omission of information as a solution that simplifies concepts was also confusing in one of the interactive games. Since no biotech exhibit is ever complete without a panel explaining DNA, there was a game about DNA. The exhibit does a good job of explaining that DNA is composed of four building blocks – the adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine nucleotides. But the activity following it falsely portrays DNA's method of communication in the body as the method that is actually employed by mRNA. There is a significant difference between DNA and mRNA, not the least of which is that there is no thymine nucleotide in mRNA. The activity asks people to form a message from the pool of different colored magnetic objects inside the display case. The objects are color-coded to DNA nucleotides. Each English letter is represented by different triplet combinations of the colored objects inside the display. Using the complementary magnetic pen, you arrange the magnetic objects into a line to spell out a message. This system of forming a message by groups of three imitates mRNA's triplet code. Only mRNA is read in triplets as a template for assembling amino acids (“words”), which are the building blocks for proteins (“sentences”) in our body. As a result, using objects that are color-coded to DNA nucleotides and situating the activity immediately after an explanation of DNA gives the public the wrong idea that DNA is responsible for conveying messages through triplet code.
Although the portrayal of DNA communication was not quite accurate, the activity's strategy of explaining biological communication in the body by relating it to the English language is clever. The analogy is effective and older kids could probably understand it. From what I observed, however, younger kids could not figure out how to play the game. One child picked up the magnetic pen, could not figure out what to do, and promptly left.
Perhaps a different introduction to DNA that appeals to a broader age-range of visitors could be implemented. The introduction could involve an exhibit where visitors extract their own DNA. The procedure is simple, involving only a mixture of dish-washing detergent, saline, and ethanol. The visitor only has to gargle water and spit it out into the tube containing the mixture. DNA from cheek cells in the gargle-water will now float to the top, and can be lifted up with a straw. To prevent kids from easily accessing the detergent, a museum staff worker could guard the exhibit to ensure that only kids accompanied by an adult can try the demonstration.
Is it navigable?
Another game in the exhibit is an animated computer simulation about genetic rescue. Using a simulation with attractive graphics to explain abstract concepts is an excellent idea. Short of actually conducting the experiment on petri plates, it would be hard to illustrate genetic rescue any other way. Unfortunately, the simulation's user-interface proved to be confusing and difficult to navigate, which detracted from the learning process. In the program, the player's goal is to create a biotech solution by testing gene therapy. When I attempted the simulation, I could not even hear the instructions because the speakers were installed far behind the computer. As a result, I had to rely on highlighted, blinking objects on the screen to figure out what to do next. Even when I tried to click and drag the selected objects to the correct destination, the program refused to acknowledge what I had just done, and moved the object back to its original location. My frustrations were repeated ten minutes later when an adult sat at the station, tried for ten seconds to navigate the program, and impatiently left when the computer wasn't cooperating.
It is clear that the designers of the exhibit devoted much thought to rendering complicated concepts accessible to visitors of various ages and backgrounds. For the most part, their time and hard work paid off.
The purpose of each step in the lab simulation was also hard to understand. You have the general idea that you want to use a virus to cure someone with lung cancer. But the rationale behind each step is not addressed. For example, in the first step entitled “attach genes,” you have no idea what genes you are attaching and why you even want to attach them. Then, the computer indicates that you should cut the “bad genes” from the virus. You then naturally wonder, “But why doesn't the body mount an immune response to the viral genes you don't cut out?” The logic remains blurry even after you have completed the lab, when you still don't have a solid grasp of gene therapy.
Perhaps a more understandable introduction to an interactive demonstration of gene therapy would personalize the gene you are trying to “fix.” You could offer PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) paper to visitors at the start of the activity. PTC tastes bitter or is tasteless, depending on the genetic makeup of the taster. People who can't taste it have inherited a copy of the gene that renders them unable to detect the bitterness. The rest of the activity could proceed as a quest to add the “tastable” copy of the gene into the cells of people without that copy. This addition of PTC paper would clarify the idea of what genes you are trying to attach in a lab simulation, and teach you a fun genetic trait about yourself.
One of the most memorable parts of the exhibit was the provocative, ethical questions about biotechnology. Some of the questions included, “Should parents be allowed to engineer their babies' genes so that their offspring are 'ideal?'” and “Should humans engineer plants so that nature will look the way they want it to?” These questions are features of good exhibits because visitors walk away with something to think about. They can relate the content to decisions in their own lives. This part of the exhibit could have been improved, though, if the questions were situated in a more eye-catching area. The questions currently sit on a faded plaque below illuminated, enlarged pictures. Compounded with the dim lighting, it's hard to notice that there is even a plaque below the picture.
“Tales of Biotech” has the overall makings of a currently relevant, educational exhibit. It covers a broad spectrum of topics that are showcased by the media and arouse curiosity in the public. Although its breadth of coverage of such a rapidly evolving field is commendable, the exhibit's delivery of accurate, understandable information is ineffective. The style of giving only pieces of information about new approaches to solving problems leaves the audience with questions and confusion. In addition, by trying to make information accessible to visitors of various ages and backgrounds, the exhibit's designers oversimplified concepts to the point where information became inaccurate. “Tales of Biotech” addressed important aspects of today's world, but it could have conveyed information more effectively by sticking to “quality over quantity.”