Sweet genes are made of this

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Taking a trip fromthe dawn of life 500 million years ago to now, Michael Duffy is thrilled by a new laboratory whichis at the cutting edge of science.

Only a Dome's width away from Newcastle's Central Station, The International Centre for Life has been compared to the famous London attraction. However, although it was dubbed "the Dome of the North" for its dramatic skyline, the similarity ends there.

It's true that the centre hadlottery funding - but only 5 per cent of what was spent at Greenwich. This project has ample car parking and absolute clarity of purpose.

It is less a visitor attraction than a working campus: a science park whose mission is not just to discover and apply revolutionary DNA-based knowledge, but to explain it to the people whose lives are going to be changed by it. So its educational role is crucial.

Beside the new clinical, research and biotechnology buildings, there is Life Interactive World, which explains the secrets of life with a display of audio-visual wizardry so mouth-watering that even today's techno-blase children are captivated.

Life Interactive World is fun. It starts with The River of Life zone, which tells the story of evolution in terms of our DNA relatives - from the nearest in time, the chimpanzees; to ultimately, 500 million years ago, the worm-like creature called pikaia. You use your ticket to scan your face into the display and at every stage your image is "morphed" into that of the creature whose DNA, even at that distance, was where we came from.

The other zones use similar effects: cell war games in Cell City, and mating rituals and the development of the embryo in the womb in Life's Amazing Journey. A small theatre doubles as a sit-in model of the human brain - and in Life is a Rollercoaster!, a totally convincing simulation of some very scary white knuckle rides.

The challenge is to turn the excitement into learning. If you spend an afternoon in Life World, you tend, as children do, to rush from one experience and screen to another.

It's all too easy - even with the excellent key-stage graded work cards that the centre provides for school groups - to miss the real insights. What is really needed is a way of helping to experience the science, not just observe it.

Which is where Lifelab comes in - the latest addition to the complex. Two up-to-the minute laboratories and a computer-cum-seminar room provide facilities and resources most schools can only dream of. In the junior lab, teacher-scientist Joanne Clark and her technicians offer one-hour hands-on science workshops for up to 30 children for just the cost of materials used. Her topics, all of them key stage related, include fossils, the senses, DNA from plants, microscopy, and forensic biology.

In the senior lab, D Sarah McLusky and her colleagues run longer GCSE sessions on conservation genetics, cell transformation and (at A-level standard) DNA copying by polymerase chain reaction (PMR).

Apart from those run at Reading by the National Centre for Biotechnology Education, these workshops are unique: both NCBE and the Wellcome Trust - who have been "wonderfully supportive", Sarah says - helped to sponsor this latest venture which opened last month.

I talked to two schools who made early visits. Colin Dyson, science co-ordinator at Wensleydale middle school in Blyth, Northumberland, took four groups of 30 pupils to Life World, each of whom had an hour session on forensic medicine on theirday visit.

"It was absolutely splendid," he says. "The children had to solve a murder mystery set up for them by video. They performed six different investigations, using fingerprinting, comparisons of hairs and fibre, chromatography, microscopy and (mock) blood sampling. They thought it was brilliant. 'Why can't we have a lab like this at school?' they said."

Susanne Davison, key stage 3 science co-ordinator at Nunthorpe school in Cleveland, agrees. "Wonderful facilities, and excellent science - and though technically it's only the chromatography that features in the key stage 3 curriculum, that doesn't matter. The value is the stimulus that this gives them. It's a way of keeping them switched on to science at this crucial stage of their schooling. 'This is much, much better, Miss,' one of them said to me, 'than doing field work in our wellies."

"And of course," she adds, "there are the hidden messages as well. Through the windows of Lifelab, they can look right into the University Department of Human Genetics. Across the square, there is the Regional Genetics Clinic. I think they sense that here, they're at the cutting edge of science."

Which is not always, of course, a comfortable place to be. Human genome research raises deeply felt concerns about the responsible use of biotechnology: it is no accident that there is also a joint universities' Life Sciences Policy and Ethics Institute on this site.

It was very much the founders' vision, though, that public interest and involvement had to be at the heart of the new Life Centre.

What they are achieving and passing on to pupils, is a practical realisation that life science is demanding, important and exciting. Like life itself, it's a real white knuckle ride.

The International Centre for Life Times Square, Scotswood Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE1 4EPTel: 0191 243 8223 www.centreforlife.co.uk. Cost: school parties pound;3.99 per pupil (one teacher free with 10 pupils). Lifelab workshops, 50p-pound;4 per pupil, depending on length and level of session. Access to a packed lunch room with secure storage.

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