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Unlocking Life's Code
Unlocking Life's Code

A lot can change in just a few years.

In 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) successfully completed mapping the human genome. It took eight years, $2.7 billion, and over 1,000 scientists from around the globe to chart the 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides contained within a single strand of our DNA.

Today, a single lab can do that work in about a week for around $1,000. Companies such as 23andMe offer personalized DNA screening services for less than the cost of a new iPhone. And with the latest technologies, scientists can make specific changes to targeted genes in living cells and study the effects of the resulting mutations.

These life science breakthroughs over the past decade have been mirrored by major progress here in Portland. The partnership between Portland State and Oregon Health and Science University has stimulated many developments that could hardly have been imagined in 2003. The neighboring universities created two popular new graduate programs, the Healthcare MBA and the Oregon Master of Public Health, the latter of which spawned the new OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. Along with Oregon State, the universities built the state-of-the-art Collaborative Life Sciences Building in South Waterfront. The Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute’s new Bioscience Incubator joined the Portland State University Business Accelerator as South Waterfront homes for local startup companies fueling the region’s diversifying economy. OHSU raised $1 billion for cancer research and PSU received $27M for EXITO—the largest federal grant in its history—to enhance undergraduate training in biomedical-related fields for underserved populations. And new infrastructure including high speed/high capacity digital fiber linking OHSU and PSU, the Orange Line light rail, and the Tilikum Crossing Bridge established even stronger connections among PSU, OMSI, Portland Community College, and OHSU, all of which lie within the city’s newest district, the Innovation Quadrant.

Set against this backdrop, OMSI, in collaboration with PSU and OHSU, hosted a traveling exhibit Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code this past Fall. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution and the NHGRI, the exhibit was created to celebrate the anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project and a decade’s worth of scientific and technological advances in genetic research. Visitors to the museum explored the complexities of the genome through immersive and often personalized interactive experiences, which helped them understand what the genome is, why it is important to study, and how it connects us to all other life on earth.

The 2,900 square foot exhibit introduced museum visitors young and old to the DNA molecule, the science of genomics, medical and health applications, and the philosophical and ethical implications of altering an organism’s genetic code. The exhibit also connected the public with scientists and educators at OMSI, PSU, and OHSU and their exciting research.

In addition to the traveling exhibit, OMSI, in collaboration with PSU and OHSU faculty and staff members, developed genome-related educational activities designed to engage the public in hands-on learning. Museum attendees got exposed to research methods by extracting DNA from strawberries. They were challenged to create model proteins using Legos while they found out about protein synthesis and what happens when things go wrong in the nucleus of a cell. They examined the hand bones of different animals to better understand the evolutionary relationships among species and learned about how DNA sequencing can show the connections between organisms as seemingly different as humans and fungi.

During busy weekends, these and other activities were facilitated by specially trained PSU graduate and undergraduate students recruited from life science labs on campus. While leading visitors in activities, the students discussed the research they and their advisors do, and how their studies fit into the context of the exhibit and the life sciences more broadly.

“This has been an excellent way to share with the public the kinds of research going on at PSU and OHSU and why that work is important,” said Sean Rooney, OMSI Senior Educator for Life Science.

Throughout the fall OMSI also featured weekly “Meet a Scientist” programs in its Life Lab. These events were facilitated by PSU and OHSU researchers participating in OMSI’s Science Communication Fellowship Program. Claire Riggs, a comparative physiology Ph.D. candidate and pupil of Dr. Jason Podrabsky, shared with the public her experiences of being a researcher and scientist.

For those who enjoy a pint of craft-brewed IPA and a meal with their science, OMSI also hosted a “Science Pub” event at the Hollywood Theater where PSU Professor of Microbiology Dr. Anna-Louise Reysenbach captivated the audience with a presentation about her research on the organisms and ecosystems that not only survive, but thrive in the extreme environments created by thermal vents in the cold, lightless depths at the bottom of the sea.

“I think this kind of public outreach is absolutely critical for science and researchers,” said Biology Professor Dr. Ken Stedman, who was one of several PSU faculty members that advised and consulted OMSI as the museum developed and prepared activities and programming to accompany the exhibit. “For one, the work we do in the lab is supported by the public through research grants from the state and federal government. I also think it’s critical that we help the public understand why research is important and how it affects the public good. Partnering with OMSI has been a great way to accomplish that and I hope this kind of collaboration continues into the future.”

The timing of the Genome exhibit was not an accident. PSU’s VP for Research and Strategic Partnerships Jonathan Fink, who serves on the boards of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and OMSI, learned several years ago that the show would begin traveling in 2014. He suggested that OMSI, PSU, and OHSU collaborate to bring it here in Fall 2015 to commemorate the opening of Tilikum Crossing. This exhibit is just the beginning of what will be a growing series of educational, scientific, workforce and economic development synergies among the city, PSU, OHSU, PCC and OMSI emerging within the new Innovation Quadrant.

In coming years, Portlanders will see the skyline on both sides of the Willamette transform with innovation-related developments, with a particular emphasis on the life sciences. OHSU’s Schnitzer Campus will add several new research and teaching buildings, some likely shared with PSU, while OMSI and PCC will expand their health science related outreach and training. There will be an increase in the number and diversity of scientists entering biomedical-related fields as PSU fully implements its new NIH-funded EXITO program and as a new generation of researchers enrolls in graduate programs in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. And collaborations such as the one that brought Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code to OMSI will provide the public more frequent opportunities to explore the research going on in their backyards.