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Exploring Traits

Jarred In
Artist Phil Ross explores the intersection of technology and life in his "space age" garden installation.

In October 2002, we put a new face on our Life Sciences section. Our newest exhibit collection, Traits of Life, reflects some of the latest theories in modern biology without losing sight of the fundamentals. After three years of research and experimentation, our team of scientists, exhibit developers, designers, writers, and evaluators unveiled over thirty new and revitalized biology exhibits and demonstrations.

With a mind toward revealing the characteristics shared by all living things, the Traits collection focuses on four defining features: All life reproduces, uses energy, evolves over time, and consists of cells and DNA. Each section is designed to help visitors see past the diversity of living things to the underlying unity connecting us all.

This selection was not intended to be all-inclusive. "Biologists point to anywhere from two to twenty-two traits of life, depending on their area of study," says Charles Carlson, Director of Life Sciences. "We compressed the list of traits to a reasonable number that we could exhibit."

What are the essential elements of life? What sorts of things would you look for to help you distinguish living from inanimate matter? Encouraging visitors to think about these things is what the Traits collection is all about. Our planet is filled with millions of species in seemingly endless variations of size, shape, and color. Yet however diverse these species appear—from a bacterium consisting of a single cell to a human being composed of a hundred trillion cells—all follow the same biological laws.

Muscle Cells
You'll see how cells group together to form specialized tissue in the Zoom in on Cells exhibit.

"This collection of exhibits is groundbreaking in its focus on the uniformity of life rather than on the diversity," says Kathy McLean, the museum’s Director of the Center for Public Exhibition. "As visitors explore these exhibits, they’ll see how closely related all living things are."

Traits of Life, the outgrowth of a research grant from the National Science Foundation, with additional support from the Genentech Foundation for Biomedical Sciences, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc., celebrates the wonder and diversity of life while revealing the underlying chemistry shared by all living things. The grant also supports a traveling show hosted by museums around the country. The traveling show features about twenty exhibits selected from the core group of Traits exhibits, along with a station equipped for biology demonstrations, including DNA extraction and sea urchin fertilization.

At the Exploratorium Traits collection, colorful bacteria, glowing worms, zebrafish embryos, and mutant fruit flies are among the organisms on display. Just as scientists prefer to use a particular organism to study a particular biological question, each of these organisms represents a specific property. The bacteria in the Living Color exhibit demonstrate how some single-celled organisms use pigments to capture the sun’s energy. The one-millimeter-long, soil-dwelling nematodes in Glowing Worms gleam with genes taken from a sea jelly, evidence of the similarity of genetic material in different species. The transparent body of the zebrafish in Look Inside a Zebrafish Egg displays the growth and development pattern common to embryos, and the fruit flies in the Mutant Flies exhibit show how genes shape physical attributes.

The strategies these organisms use to survive and reproduce are as varied as their appearance, but the chemistry that governs their behavior is not. As scientists decode the genomes of more and more organisms, they’re finding the same genes at work in more and more species. We human beings, it turns out, share about 99 percent of our 30,000 genes with mice. We even have the genes to grow a tail, although we seem to have lost the command to do so.

"The more we find out about the genetics of living things," says McLean, "the more we understand that all life is related. It’s not some kind of New Age notion that the squirrel is my sister or the slime mold my cousin; it’s really true. In talking to visitors, we’re finding out that these exhibits encourage them to ask questions about what life really is. And ‘what is life?’ is probably one of the most profound questions we can ask."

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