Genomics England has created a series of animations to help the public understand more about what genomics means and how it may affect them in the future.
The project – Socialising the Genome – is the brainchild of Dr Anna Middleton, prinicipal social scientist at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge, who has teamed up with advertising expert Julian Borra to create six animations designed to be easily accessible to everyone.
The project follows a series of focus group discussions on genes, DNA and genomics that Dr Middleton conducted around country. She discovered a startling lack of understanding of even the most basic terms. 'A gene was recognised as something that ran in families, while DNA was mainly concerned with crime scenes, I was told. As for genomics, it was suggested several times that genomics probably had something to do with gnomes,' Dr Middleton told the Observer.
Even those who had direct experience of genetic conditions knew very little about the terminology. 'One person had a genetic eye condition, another had a genetic skin condition, one woman had a sister who was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene that predisposes to breast cancer and another woman had three sisters who had all contracted ovarian cancer.
'All were leading lives that were touched by genetic conditions, but they lacked the language or the knowledge to talk about them. It made me realise that we in the genetics world don't tend to meet people who are totally unconnected with [us] very often. We are lacking a common language.'
The aim of the animations is to begin to create that common language, and each one takes its inspiration from Dr Middleton's focus group discussions. One shows that genes are shuffled like a deck of cards when a sperm and egg meet; another even has a little gnome with a fishing rod to illustrate how scientists search genes within the genome – 'it was too good to resist', said Borra.
The animations are available at genetube.org. Members of the public are invited to answer questions, then to watch each animation in turn. By the end of the process Dr Middleton hopes that they will have a better understanding of genes and DNA. She also plans to use the feedback to find out what works and what doesn't when talking to the public about genomics.
The project was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Wellcome Genome Campus and Genomics England. Dr Julian Rayner, Director of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Genome Campus said: 'Genomics is going to be an increasing part of both science and everyday life in the coming years. We are committed to helping people understand the science and implications of genomics, and listening to their hopes and worries. Anna's exciting work will help us start those essential and fascinating conversations.'