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Tom Smart, Deseret News
University of Utah associate professor Anthea Letsou will discuss her research involving fruit flies.

"DNA connects us all," explains Rachel Zurer, the gallery programs coordinator at the Utah Museum of Natural History. That's why the museum's newest traveling exhibit will open with a party in honor of connectedness.

At the One World Family Festival on Saturday, visitors can learn more about their own family's traits and also celebrate genetics in general. Musicians and dancers from New Zealand, Okinawa and Venezuela will entertain at the festival as visitors view the exhibit.

On that day, museumgoers will get to extract DNA from peas. They'll build edible models of a double helix out of marshmallows and licorice twists. They'll get a chance to see where they fit on the family tree of all humanity, inscribing their own leaves with personal genetic information, such as whether their earlobes are attached and whether they can roll their tongues or taste a sour substance.

The exhibit itself, "Putting DNA to Work," was developed by the National Academy of Sciences through the Marian Koshland Science Museum. The "Putting DNA to Work" exhibit was one of several interactive exhibits on display when the

Koshland Museum first opened in Washington, D.C., in April 2004.

So "Putting DNA to Work" was part of the reason the Koshland got rave reviews when it opened. Science magazine wrote, "D.C.'s newest museum proves what all scientists know and the general public always suspected: Science is fun."

Only a handful of Utah Museum of Natural History employees had a chance to see the traveling exhibit before it was installed this past weekend. Utah exhibit designer Tim Lee saw it last year in Boise, and he says one of his favorite activities was a guessing game.

It is basically a lineup, like a police lineup, Lee explains. "There are pictures of Einstein, a mouse, a fly, some yeast, a chimpanzee. You have to guess what percentage of the genes of each of these matches your genes. It is supercool."

Lee says he thinks most people are familiar with DNA. They know what a double helix looks like. They know that our corn, and much of our food, actually, has been genetically modified. They know that DNA discovered at a crime scene can help catch a criminal.

But this exhibit puts everything in context, Lee says. No matter how old you are, or what you already know about DNA, he is sure you'll come away from the exhibit with a better idea of what scientists are doing with DNA right now.

Of course, Utah scientists are some who are doing the most. University of Utah researcher Mario Capecchi won the Nobel Prize for medicine last year for his work on gene targeting in the embryonic stem cells of mice. The Utah Museum of Natural History folks will expand upon the national traveling exhibit, adding displays on Capecchi and other local scientists.

Later in the summer, in another addition to the exhibit, U. associate professor Anthea Letsou will talk to museum visitors about her research with fruit flies. She's explained it to elementary school kids before, she says. She knows she can make it understandable.

The hardest part for a nonscientist to accept, she says, is the similarities between human DNA and fruit fly DNA. People are amazed to learn that the same gene that makes an eye in a fly also makes an eye in a human. Even though, Letsou notes, the fly's eye is this funky compound thing and the human eye is what we call a "normal" eye. It is a mutation on exactly the same gene that causes either a human or a fly to be born without eyes.

Unlike most of the exhibits the museum brings in, DNA is invisible to the naked eye, Zurer notes. When they brought in the frog exhibit, well, they brought in live frogs. But DNA? "It is hard to see. And it is so important," Zurer says. "We have to try to come at it from a lot of different angles."

Another angle the museum will try includes experiments and art projects developed locally, by the Genetic Science Learning Center. Louisa Stark, the center's director, explains, "Our goal is to translate the wonderful science that is being done here at the university so that people anywhere can understand it."

There are so many misconceptions about DNA, Stark says. And so much for most people still to learn. For example, she says, proudly, here is a fact a lot of Utahns might not know: "More genes for genetic diseases have been discovered at the University of Utah than anywhere else in the world."

If you go

What: "The One World Family Festival," an opening day party for the "Putting DNA to Work" exhibit

Where: Utah Museum of Natural History, University of Utah

When: Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

How much: free (regular admission prices apply after Saturday)

Phone: 581-6927

Web: www.umnh.utah.edu and learn.genetics.utah.edu

Also: The "Putting DNA to Work" exhibit runs through Oct. 12. To enhance the exhibit, various local scientists will explain their DNA work. For example, on Aug. 1, at 2 p.m., Anthea Letsou leads a discussion about using fruit flies to study human diseases.

E-mail: [email protected]