17 March 2014
ByAppeared in BioNews 746
Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD, UK
Wednesday 26 February 2014
The last time I tried to drink beer in a museum ended with me being forcibly evicted from the premises. I was, therefore, delighted to review the Science Museum's Lates night, where visitors can buy and consume alcohol in the museum itself, in an enterprise affectionately termed 'drinking and thinking' by regular attendees. I was not disappointed with the event, which was both fascinating and enjoyable.
Lates events are free, take place on the last Wednesday of every month, and there are DJs and bars on three floors of the museum. Each Lates is themed and I attended the 'Bio-Revolution' night, which focused on biomedical research, and was organised in conjunction with the Francis Crick Institute.
The museum itself was filled with incalculable (well, 50) events, activities and stalls, the vast majority of which pertained to the evening's theme. They spanned all five floors of the museum, ranging from talks in the basement, past the gyrating hordes in the (inappropriately named) 'silent' disco on the ground floor (I haven't heard so many people singing out-of-tune since mandatory choir practice in secondary school), and up to a demonstration of epigenetics research on the fourth.
The first of the two events I'll describe here was enigmatically called 'DNAquiri' and was essentially a demonstration of how to extract DNA from strawberries, while making a delicious cocktail at the same time. This unassuming fruit is, apparently, excellent for this because they contain eight copies of each chromosome per cell; six more than the number of copies found in most animals, including humans.
There were several steps to the process, but the most important were to mix the mashed-up strawberries with pineapple juice, incubate the mixture in water at 60 degrees Celsius for ten minutes before transferring it into an ice bath for the same amount of time, and finally transferring it all into a transparent glass and pouring ice cold rum on top. After a few minutes, at the boundary between the alcohol and strawberries, it became possible to see a milky substance consisting of fluffy filaments: DNA.
Pineapple juice is perfect because it is rich in bromelain, a protein-digesting enzyme that helps to break down various proteins in the strawberries and free the long DNA filaments. Putting the mixture into hot water helps cell membranes to break up, allowing for the DNA to be released, whilst incubating on ice protects the newly freed DNA from damaging enzymes. DNA is soluble in water and invisible to the naked eye, but when immersed in ice cold alcohol (60 percent or more), it becomes insoluble, clumps together and becomes visible.
As a committed and conscientious BioNews reporter, I really wanted to make sure that I fully understood the process, so I bravely followed the procedure six or seven times (I think, my memory gets a little hazy after the fifth). The things I do for science…
At the second event, 'Your Very Own Genome – What Can It Tell You?', Professor Nick Luscombe and his colleague the two speakers did a fantastic job in making an ostensibly difficult topic very accessible. They predicted that over the next five years, some NHS patients will be asked to consent to the sequencing of their entire genome, and that within the next ten years, this could become standard procedure for every patient within the NHS.
This raises an interesting ethical conundrum and the
audience were invited to consider whether or not they would consent to having
their entire genome sequenced if asked to do so by the NHS. Benefits could
include early detection and improved treatments, but on the other hand, some
genetic diseases, such as Huntington's, have no known cure – would it be better
to live in the knowledge that one day you would become
symptomatic, or to live in ignorance of that fact until it happened? This rhetorical question was Professor Luscombe's last
of the evening, and it had a sobering effect on the audience, in at least one
sense of the word.
The event is becoming increasingly popular, with nearly 7,000 people attending on the evening I was there. The Science Museum's Twitter account confirmed the next day that this was 'the biggest yet' and I imagine that it will go from strength to strength in future events. My verdict: definitely worth a visit, but go early, and go there with a plan of exactly what you want to do and see.
The next Science Museum's Lates will take place on 26 March and is all about transport.