June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Gabriella Sotelo and Molly Rains visit a new exhibit in central London to consider the ethical implications of genome editing.

The latest in a series of exhibitions at the Francis Crick Institute opened to the public on February 11th. Cut + Paste is an interactive, inviting, and immersive opportunity for visitors to contemplate the ethics and future of genome editing. 

Located at the Institute’s headquarters, just across from St. Pancras station, the exhibit is certainly eye-catching, advertised with bright graphics on the exterior of the modern building. The Liminal Space, a London-based creative consultancy, designed Cut + Paste, making great use of the building’s cavernous entry hall. While walking in, visitors can gaze upwards at floor after floor of glass-walled laboratories. As they take in the exhibition and its difficult questions, the thrum of work and discovery persists above, where the theoretical science discussed in Cut + Paste is quickly becoming reality. 

 The exhibition’s goal is to start important conversations about the ethics and future of gene editing, exhibition Officer Lauren Treacher tells us. To facilitate this, a series of signs throughout the exhibition confront visitors with deceptively simple questions. The first reads: “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?” This question may seem simple to some, but for others – including those with heritable genetic conditions – it has far more complicated implications.  

If you’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of genome editing, never fear — there’s plenty of background information available. A sculptural, futuristic construction stands center-stage with key background information about gene editing alongside stylized, attention-grabbing images of sequencing gels and chromosomes. Terminology cheat-sheets are available to guide you in interpreting the more technical language. Sensory bags, audio guides, and braille guides are also available.  

Interactive components draw the visitor into the exhibition. The first interactive section, entitled “Pass It Down,” focuses on inheritance. Here, visitors are prompted to consider their “traits, tastes, and talents,” and wonder which features they would like to pass on to future generations. With a magnetic board, and fun, bright props, visitors can choose what they’d like to pass on. Notably, all the traits provided at this station are traditionally positive traits, from “creativity” to “animal lover” and “dimples.” By asking the question “is there any feature you wouldn’t pass on, and why?”, on a more serious note, this segment can also lead people to think negatively about some of their traits.

The “Pass it Down” station is a fun opportunity to photograph your traits and post it on social media. The authors left no interactive stone unturned and are seen here thoroughly investigating this game.

The overall lighthearted nature of this section makes for a fun activity, albeit at the cost of neglecting some more serious ethical concerns and technical limitations of genome editing technology. These considerations are not ignored altogether; an arrow directs viewers towards the back of this display, where some information about the current capabilities of genome editing can be found. This information is essential context for the exhibition and is necessary in order to address common misconceptions about what genome editing is capable of and used for today. 

On a more serious note, by asking the question “is there any feature you wouldn’t pass on, and why?”, this segment can also lead people to think negatively about some of their traits. This activity nonetheless makes for an enjoyable exercise and serves as an avenue to introduce visitors to the broad implications of genome editing.

The next interactive section is a thought-provoking and informative game, called “Where Do You Draw The Line?” Visitors roll a large plush die, with each side corresponding to a different topic related to genome editing. Information-rich cards, plaques and graphics guide the player through consideration of six different real-life case studies of genome editing, including applications in  malaria control, CRISPR-edited babies, and agriculture. After reviewing the information, the player casts their vote on the issue along a spectrum ranging from “no way” to “bring it on”. This interactive station prompts visitors to engage with and learn more about each subject. Each card provides ample information and a wide variety of talking points, and the voting spectrum creates an interesting visual representation of the public’s opinions on each issue. 

Copyright image 2023© The Francis Crick Institute
For photographic enquiries please call Fiona Hanson 07710 142 633 or email info@fionahanson.com This image is copyright Fiona Hanson 2023©.

 Before leaving, visitors can leave feedback in the last section, called “Make Your Mark.” With voice recordings and handwritten notes, visitors can reflect on their visit or leave lingering questions. The chance to read and listen to the thoughts of others is a great touch. This section also encouraged social media engagement with the #CutAndPaste.  

The exhibition is open now, but it will be even better to visit in June. In early summer, a much-anticipated installation by artist Esther Fox will be arriving at Cut + Paste. As an artist who herself has a disability, Fox’s work will bring to Cut + Paste the voices of people with genetic conditions and/or those who consider themselves disabled. Ruth Garde, Curator and Creative Producer of the exhibit, stated that this section should “give space to people whose voices are marginalized in this debate [of genome editing].” Garde stressed that a place for these voices was an “absolutely critical” consideration during the creation of Cut and Paste. 

The exhibition is ideal for visitors aged sixteen and older, though younger children will still certainly enjoy the interactive components. There’s a lot of information to digest, so plan to spend at least half an hour to take everything in, but you can also drop in for a quick walk around. The exhibition is content-rich and will leave you with something to chew on, even if – as Treacher says – you only want to “pop in and start thinking about these questions.” We left Cut + Paste feeling both positive and curious, and with a wider understanding of the applications of genome editing technology, although without much more knowledge of its limitations. This is, perhaps, to be expected – especially considering that the exhibition is hosted by the largest biomedical research institute in Europe, where the third annual summit on human genome editing will be held in just a few weeks. 

Cut + Paste leaves visitors with plenty to think about. An understanding of genome editing is essential in our rapidly changing world, and this bright, immersive exhibition is an engaging initiation to this complex field.