Category Archives: genetics

Wonderful Things: Crime light

Looking back over the centuries, how many crimes committed back then would have reached a different conclusion if they occurred today with the use of modern science and technology?

 Advances in Forensic Science means that crime-scene evidence can be accurately gathered and examined, from collecting DNA and fingerprints to gunpowder residue from armed robbery, kidnap and murder.

 DNA profiling is a powerful tool in identifying a killer. Present in every cell, it identifies you and only you and it is what’s usually left behind at a crime scene.

 The Metropolitan Police estimate that they examine over 11,000 crime scenes each month and here in Who Am I? gallery, you will be able to take a look at a display of a real-life case that they needed to solve. The equipment that you will see was used by a team of forensic scientists who worked with the Metropolitan Police to solve the crime, using the latest DNA profiling technology and forensic science techniques, in particular a light source examination of the scene and objects.

 One of the items on display in this case is a crime light which was used at the scene and in the lab to detect body fluids. This LED forensic light source called Crime-lite uses filters of different colours along with viewing goggles to reveal blood splatters and fingerprint evidence otherwise difficult to detect just by looking. Providing intense, even and shadow free illumination for locating evidence, Crime-lite uses a white light for general search and seven narrow band wavelengths in UV, violet, blue, blue-green, green, orange, and red.

Crime-Lite- A Forensic's handiest tool?

Take a look at how a real forensic scientist from the Metropolitan Police North-West fingerprint lab uses this technology to detect and enhance hidden marks on a knife from a GBH incident.

  • Can you think of any infamous crimes that would’ve benefitted from a ‘Crime-lite’ or DNA profiling to solve the case?
  • Can we rely on evidence collected in this way? Is it always 100% accurate?
  • What could contaminate evidence? What preventative causes do you think police officers on the scene of a crime take to make sure they don’t disturb any evidence?

 Fancy letting your students having a go to see if they can solve a crime? Our KS3 Crime Lab kit contains three activities that covers scientific techniques related to identity and can also be used to solve our crime story about an attempted robbery at the ScienceMuseum.

To learn more about how DNA evidence can help us solve crimes, visit the Who am I? gallery on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing.

-Denise Cook

Wonderful Things: Mighty mouse

On one side stands your typical everyday house mouse, cowering before his fearsome opponent: a mouse almost twice the size and boasting an incredible physique, nicknamed, appropriately, “Knock Out”.

Knock Out mouse vs wimpy mouse

Knock Out mouse to wimpy mouse: 'I'll eat you for breakfast"

So, is this brutal mismatch down to years of obsessive bodybuilding on the running wheel? Far from it. The only difference between these two individuals is that one mouse has had a specific gene type known as Myostatin (MSTN) removed or “knocked out”. This genetic alteration has allowed its muscles to grow to a colossal size. The ‘Mighty Mouse’ strain was first created by geneticists in 1997.

The implications of the discovery are vast. Such a technique might eventually allow the treatment of certain degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy and even allow humans to maintain a high level of muscle strength into old age. Athletes could, in theory, build muscle mass without exercising!

However, in an age where advertising, magazines, comic book movie adaptations and popular culture bombard us with images of bodies seeking perfection, it is argued that an important distinction needs to be made between using genetic technologies to treat those who are suffering, and using them on healthy people seeking to become superior to the average person.

Imagine if you were granted the power to use gene knock-out technology in humans to not only cure illness but also enhance an individuals abilities:

How would you decide who would be entitled to such treatment?

If you could genetically improve one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?

Should people who can afford it, be able to pay to become ‘super-human’?

To see our monstrous Mighty Mouse and discover other gene modification techniques used on animals, visit the Who Am I gallery on the first floor in the Welcome wing.

-John Inch

Eat seaweed, make fuel.

Well, that’s what happens if you are colony of genetically engineered E.coli bacteria!

Scientists have given the bacteria genes that make it convert complex sugars in the seaweed into alcohol, which can then be used as a fuel. Seaweed is plentiful, and grows naturally in our oceans. A very good thing indeed!

Mmm, seaweed! Germ food?

Mmm, seaweed! Germ food?

Up til now, biofuels like ethanol have been made by fermeting sugarcane and maize (no E.coli involved), but that means using valuable food crop land (not to mention, food crops!) to produce the alcohol. Very controversial of course… And in the case of maize, it actually takes more energy to grow and process the crop than the energy gained from the ethanol produced!

The next step in this synthetic biology research is working out how to make this seaweedy process scaleable: biofuel production would need billions of tonnes of seaweed. A pilot plant is being built in Chile- we will stay tuned to hear how it works!

In the meantime, try your hand at engineering E.coli in Bacto-Lab, one of Futurecade‘s 4 games about current and future science. Futurecade launches next week (we are incredibly excited!!) with background science notes for each game so you can use it in the classroom to engage your students in a really fun way, and get them talking about how science that shapes their lives.

The £646 genome

What can you buy for $1000, or £646? A laptop…A moped… A holiday to Iceland… How about your genome?

Sequence your entire genome, quickly and cheaply.

fancy sequencing your genome, quickly and cheaply?

Now for that price you can sequence and own the complete genetic instructions that make you, you.  What can you do with it? You can find out if you have genes that make you susceptible to certain illnesses, like lung cancer, diabetes or arthritis.

The machine, which can sequence your genome in under a day, is smaller than a desktop printer and could be used in hospitals across the world to test for genetic mutations, and help doctors develop better therapies for, or even prevent, particular diseases. It has made personal genome sequencing a reality- quick and affordable.

The same machine was used during last year’s European E.coli outbreak to identify the strain’s drug-resistant genes and help discover where it originated.

Genome sequencing, on a desktop

Personal genome sequencing, on a desktop.

Would you like to know if you were prone to developing certain diseases? How would it affect your life? And who should have access to your genetic information?

Explore the topic of genetic testing with our discussion activity Do you want to know a Secret? , where students discuss the ethics and science of genetic tests, and consider the impact that a genetic test could have on their lives.

Wonderful Things: more than meets the eye

The toothbrush is ubiquitous in our homes; we pass it without consideration. But exploring the past of this toothbrush, a genuine item from ‘Ground Zero’, unravels a much larger, critical story.

Toothbrush used for the DNA profile identification of Alex Napier

This toothbrush has a story to tell. Image SSPL

The events of September 11th, 2001 need no introduction. These violent attacks altered our image of the world and left friends and families of victims wondering what had happened to their loved ones. In the aftermath, scientists, politicians and service people tried to answer these questions. Crucial to this was the Genes Code Corporation.

 The company worked alongside the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in the unenviable task of identifying the victims of the attacks;  every bit of remain, even the small pieces of tissue, had to be tested to allow families to complete burials.

Because of the severity of the event, the vast majority of individual remains had to be identified through DNA matching. Simple, everyday objects such as this toothbrush as well as items such as razors and clothing, were crucial in providing samples that might yield a billionth of a gram of DNA.

Scientists used these samples to produce the Mass Fatality Identification SYStem, MFISYS (pronounced ‘emphasis’).  This software recorded DNA profiles by sequencing genetic markers such as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), short tandem repeats (STRs) and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) then cross referenced this information with dental x-rays, DNA samples, and other important information to develop an account of missing persons.

Through these complex and painful searches, science helped to examine the facts and answer difficult questions. With debates surrounding projects like the DNA Database, many people are turning their attentions to the capabilities and possibilities of such resources- as well as the risks and ethical issues they carry.

Do your students think DNA profiling should be developed more or carefully moderated?

What else could we achieve by furthering the technology, and what problems can they foresee?

Where have you left your DNA today?

If you are planning a visit to the Who am I? gallery, look into booking the Great DNA Database Debate, our show about the national DNA database where your students can find out about DNA identification and voice their opinions in the debate.

 This toothbrush can be found in Who Am I? gallery. Wellcome Wing, First floor.

- Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: transgenic mice

Down at the far end of Making the Modern World sit two still white mice. Don’t panic! These mice aren’t vermin; they are in fact two freeze dried transgenic mice.

Two freeze dried genetically engineered mice

Two freeze dried genetically engineered mice, 1988. Image SSPL

The pair are direct descendants of the first transgenic mammals to be granted a US patent; among the first to be produced at Harvard Medical School in 1988. Their relatives had their genome altered through genetic engineering: by inserting an extra piece of DNA taken from a virus the mice are more prone to developing cancers.

This particular strain of mouse, known as Oncomouse is used in biomedical research for the development and discovery of treatment and cures for the disease. Nowadays, genetic engineering in mammals is becoming more vital in the development of immunisation in livestock.

Does this type of genetic engineering and testing sit happily with everyone? It appears not. Some see it as meddling with biological states and processes that have evolved over time. Others see it as advancement in the role that humans have occupied for thousands of years, after all haven’t we been selectively breeding the most desirable genetic characteristics (eg in cows, or dogs) for ages?

However, for geneticists to have identified the piece of DNA that make us more susceptible to certain types of cancers is a big deal, shouldn’t we be using this research to delve into our own DNA? By looking at our own genetic make-up, we could find out whether we were born with a cancer gene.

Should that information be available to everyone?

How would it affect society?

And should scientists be able to patent forms of life?

Explore the issues around genetic testing with your students using our genetics resource “Do you want to know a secret?” Give it a go to help your students discuss whether they would want to take a genetic test.

This pair of transgenic mice is in Making the Modern World, on the ground floor.

- Denise Cook

DNA Database – what’s the debate?

Have you ever wondered how DNA evidence is used to solve crimes? What is the National DNA Database? And why should it matter to us anyway?

Explore these questions and more in our new show ‘The Great DNA Debate’, all about genetic information, how it can be used, and who should have access to it. 


Socks and chromosomes in the Great DNA Debate show

Socks and chromosomes go together in the Great DNA Debate show

This interactive show is designed to support your teaching of KS3 and KS4  Biology and How Science Works, including applications and implications of science. Your students are also encouraged to participate in the discussion and have their say, so it’s a great PTLS activity too (check out the video here for a taste of the show!)

Planning to take your students to the Who am I? exhibition to explore genetics, brain science, and how they make each of us unique? This show will really enhance your visit.

The Great DNA Debate is free but requires prebooking, upcoming performances are on Tuesday 8th November, at 11am and 1pm. The show is 45 minutes long.

Call our Learning Support Team on 0207 942 4777 to find out more and book your class in!

KS3 genetics and brain science

Hot off the press! We have just launched a brand-new series ‘Genetics and Brain Science’ on the Science Museum’s Educators website, where you can find a range of free KS3 and KS4 classroom activities. The resources support you in teaching contemporary science and How Science Works, and relate to our very popular Who am I? gallery.

To start off, we would like to present two activities that allow your students to explore the science of genetics:

Identical twins exploring the Who am I? gallery

1. In ‘Do you want to know a secret?’ your students work in research groups and discuss the issues surrounding genetic testing. Depending on the choices the groups make at the end of the session, they may find out the secret that their box holds…

2. By adopting a Thing in our fun game Thingdom, your students will learn about genetic inheritance and selective breeding. Can they breed new Things that have all the characteristics they want? Use the teaching film and student sheet to bring the Things alive in your classroom!

Watch this space…we will add more ‘Genetics and Brain Science’ resources shortly. And, as always, if you try these out, we’d love to hear about it!

Anna P

Swab test to predict future illness?

Could a single drop of your saliva tell you if you are prone to genetically inherited diseases?

Model of DNA

Model of DNA (SSPL)

Well this could soon be a reality according to scientists at Edinburgh University. They are developing a quick and cheap swab test to analyse your DNA. the Results could tell you if you were healthly, likely to develop a disease or diagonse conditions like cystic fibrosis. You can read more about this research here

Would you take the test? Would you like to know what your future health might be?

This story is a great starter for a dicussion around DNA, gentetics and gentic inheritance. The human barometer technique would be the perfect way to measure your student’s opinion and see how they would feel about having this test done.