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NLM, in Cooperation with National Museum of American History, Launches “From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry”

Special Display, Traveling Banner Exhibition to Debut November 18, 2013

The National Library of Medicine (NLM), in cooperation with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, launches a special display in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room, a traveling banner exhibition made available free of charge to cultural institutions across the country, and an online adaptation of From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry. From DNA to Beer explores some of the processes, problems, and potentials inherent in technologies that use life. The display will be installed at NLM, on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health, from November 18, 2013 through April 18, 2014. (Visitor information appears at the foot of this release.)

Microbes—tiny organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye—have altered human history. Life forms such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds can cause sickness or restore health, and help produce foods and beverages for our consumption. Scientists, in partnership with industry, have developed techniques to harness the powers of these microbes. In recent years, headline-grabbing technologies have used genetically modified bacteria to manufacture new medicines. Drawing from the collections of the National Museum of American History and the National Library of Medicine, From DNA to Beer will help to promote public understanding of the dynamic relationship between microbes, technology, and science and medicine.

Today, biotechnology (or "biotech") is most often associated with recent developments in genetic engineering, the science of directly manipulating DNA. But technologies that utilize organisms, especially yeast and other microorganisms, have been around for thousands of years, forming the basis for brewing beer, fermenting wine, and making bread. Only in the past two centuries, however, has the scientific basis for these technologies emerged. One result has been the fundamental role of laboratory science in medicine and pharmacy, which has led to a host of new therapies, from the serums and vaccines of the 19th century to the recombinant drugs of today. Through these commercial products, the public encounters a powerful partnership of science and industry, inherent in all modern biotechnologies. In turn, the availability of these products poses a challenge to society, as their manufacture and use have consequences both biological and ethical concerning the nature of life.

From DNA to Beer includes a selection of artifacts from the collections of the National Museum of American History and the National Library of Medicine that illuminate relationships between science, industry, and the public in historical context. Four case studies will be presented: the recent use of recombinant DNA in drug production; the "miracle" of penicillin and consequences of its access and overuse; the relationship of microbes, mammals, and people inherent in serum therapy; and the work of Pasteur and his relationship to the brewing and wine-making industry. The companion website will allow visitors to explore the artifacts along with additional texts and documents to gain a better understanding of the historical period during which these products were created and distributed.

This unique exhibition will be open to the public in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room (NIH Building 38, first floor) November 18, 2013 to April 18, 2014. From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry was curated by Diane Wendt and Malory Warner from the Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History.

The traveling banner exhibition is available for booking. Please visit the traveling exhibition services Web site for more information about From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is the world's largest library of the health sciences and home to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, one of the key government organizations focusing on genetics information. NLM is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and is located on the campus of the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. The library is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and its vast online resources are available free to the world at // Admission to all onsite NLM exhibitions is free. For more information, visit // or, to arrange a group tour, call 301.496.6308.

The National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history and helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The Birth of Biotech, a new display at the National Museum of American History which opened October 24, explores the science and industry behind the first major product of the biotech boom—recombinant human insulin. This 10-foot case features lab and factory equipment used to produce recombinant insulin shown alongside historic objects used for managing and treating diabetes from the 1930s to the 1980s. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets NW and is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM. Admission is free. For more information, visit or call 202.633.1000.

Sales kit

Insulin sales kit, Eli Lilly and Company, 1940s

Courtesy National Museum of American History

In the early 1920s, Canadian researchers isolated insulin from the pancreas glands of animals and successfully treated children with diabetes.  They partnered with the American company Eli Lilly to mass produce this life-saving substance. This sales kit illustrates the step-by-step process for manufacturing insulin.

Posilac product kit


Posilac, recombinant bovine growth hormone, Monsanto Company, 1994

Courtesy National Museum of American History

Following the success of human growth hormone (hGH), researchers developed a recombinant bovine (cow) growth hormone, which became available in 1994. The drug did not treat a disorder in cattle, but instead drug companies marketed the substance to dairy farmers to increase milk production.

Penicillin plant


"Penicillin, which started life as a laboratory curiosity, has grown into a giant industry." Yellow Magic, 1945

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The publication of Yellow Magic in 1945 celebrated the achievement of the American companies engaged "in producing the most heroic drug ever dreamed of by man" and coincided with the release of penicillin for the general population.

Woman working in a lab in the 1950s (a painting)


"The Era of Antibiotics"  by Robert A. Thom, 1950s

Courtesy National Museum of American History

Penicillin research and production are depicted in this painting by Robert A. Thom, commissioned by Parke, Davis & Company as part of their "Great Moments in Pharmacy" advertising campaign in the 1950s.

Horses and lab


Recovering the diphtheria serum from horse blood in Marburg, Germany, drawn from nature by Fritz Gehrke, 1890s

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Humans and animals have natural defense systems that produce antibodies in the blood to combat bacteria and other harmful substances invading the body. In the late nineteenth century, scientists investigating this immune response in animals developed new methods for treating diseases in humans.

Paper announcement for anti-diptheria serum


Diphtheria Antitoxic Serum: Announcement, History, Application, Reports, H. K. Mulford Company, about 1895

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

 Parke Davis was one of the first American companies to manufacture diphtheria antitoxin. By 1898 they produced serums in several different strengths and also sold serum syringes capable of administering the large doses needed for therapy.  The H. K. Mulford Company was a competitor in the antitoxin market; this pamphlet describes the company's personal approach to producing the antitoxin along with collected study data and proper application of the serum.

Pasteur flask and microscope


Pasteur flask, early 20th century, and Microscope, made in France by Nachet et Fils, about 1860

Courtesy National Museum of American History

Pasteur used special tools and methods for studying the activity of microorganisms in the brewing process.  Flasks with long curved necks allowed oxygen to get in while keeping unwanted microbes out. Improvements in microscope lenses made the identification of different microorganisms possible.

Drawing of yeast


Drawing of Yeast by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, 1680

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Dutch lens maker Anton van Leeuwenhoek was probably the first person to see yeast.  He made this drawing in 1680, after viewing beer through his primitive homemade microscope.