Science Uncovered

Dr. Rose Wilson from the Green lab reports on the group’s experience at the ‘Science Uncovered’ event at the Natural History Museum, London

What does DNA taste like?

img_0470Recently five of us from Catherine Green’s lab group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics went to the Natural History Museum in London to run a stall at the Science Uncovered ‘lates’ night. The late night openings happen regularly but this was a special event with 100s of stalls from researchers all over the country, part of European Researchers’ Night with events across Europe. Driving there with the props we had been crafting during the previous week (I’m sure people had been confused by the balls of wool on my desk!) in the boot of the car, we were full of nervous energy, not quite sure of what to expect….

Thousands of people!

img_0469Our stall was in the ‘beyond our sight’ section, which seemed very appropriate for talking about DNA. The lab works on how cells maintain genome stability whilst undergoing DNA replication, and how DNA Repair processes fix mistakes when they occur. So we focussed on highlighting some of the remarkable features of DNA as a molecule, what kind of damage events DNA is exposed to and how these are repaired.

“If you took all the DNA from one person, how long do you think it would reach?”

“To the sun and back….”

“500 times!!”

“And it would weigh as much as a hamster!”

This was a familiar refrain from the Cath and Lihao double act at our DNA-quiri station where we helped people extract DNA from strawberries with the aid of pineapple juice and rum. Adults (there were some children early on – their parents had to help with this bit) were able to consume this if they wished. In this situation DNA tastes pretty much like a strawberry daiquiri!

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Daniela and Elsie also had some fixed slides to look at down a microscope and a DNA jigsaw complete with damaged sections to show how DNA is replicated and why damaged sections particularly cause problems at this time. I was looking after two giant nuclei complete with wool DNA. We had made the nuclei with DNA damage events (beads and clips) to represent the amount of damage each cell typically gets per day, and how well our DNA Damage Response and Repair mechanisms have evolved to be able to find and repair (most) of this damage. We had a Top-Gear style board of the top damage finders – still, those at the top only found about 10% in 1 minute whereas our cells can detect damage within seconds!

All kinds of questions…

The event ran from 4-9pm and all five of us were talking to people constantly, often with a queue – I have never experienced anything like it. We were all pretty wiped out on the way home and any ideas we had of visiting the other stalls were just that. However, it was a small price to pay for such a great evening. We spoke to people from all kinds of backgrounds and everyone was interested in learning something about DNA. I have to say that went for me too, I was amazed at the figures we came up with – I had never sat down and worked it out before.

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Most people were keen to link what we were talking about to other things they knew or had come across so we also had interesting discussions about food consumption, cancer risk, disease heritability, mitochondrial disorders – you name it. We also had a lot of fun, and it’s nice to step back every now and again from the minutiae of that western blot you are working on to remember that the natural world, humans, cells are amazing.

Thanks to the organisers at the Natural History Museum and the people who came – we had a great time, I hope you did too. Also thanks to Brian at the WTCHG for helping us out with DNA-quiri recipes and cutting out lots of jigsaw pieces!

Pictures by Prof. Cath Green

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