The interactive exhibit opened to the public on July 1 and continues through January 8, 2006. Located in the Exploratorium's high-resolution Microscope Imaging Station, it is designed to show stem cells at different stages of differentiation, from their uniform, pluripotent state (that is, possessing the potential to become many different types of cells) to those that have become more specialized.
Present in embryos, stem cells have a feature that makes them unlike any others: they can simultaneously make identical copies of themselves and make differentiated--or specialized--cells, such as cardiac myocytes. At the exhibit, visitors view the development of cardiac myocytes, the cells that form the heart. Thus they can witness the transition of stem cells from their undifferentiated state to pulsating, beating heart cells.
At Gladstone, a team from the lab of Bruce Conklin, associate investigator, Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, supplied the original stem cells being grown for the exhibit and trained museum staff members on techniques to activate the cells into their differentiated cardiac myocyte state. It was Conklin's discussions with the Exploratorium staff over the last year that helped spark the idea for this prototype exhibit.
"Stem cells offer a window into the earliest stages of every organism's development, even humans," explains Conklin, an associate professor of medicine and cellular and molecular pharmacology at UCSF. "They hold the promise of new knowledge and treatments for a variety of human diseases. It's been very rewarding developing an exhibit of this kind designed to educate the general public about stem cell research."