K-12, stem cells

Biology-Related Exhibits at the Miraikan Museum in Tokyo

Note: The Biology Bytes blog will only be updated on Tuesday this week (the author is traveling in Japan). Regular Tuesday/Thursday updates will resume on June 3.

Whenever I travel internationally, I make a point of visiting science museums. It’s fascinating not only to learn scientific concepts from them, but also to see what specific topics and interactive activities have been chosen to be turned into exhibits; the exhibits are the end result of a careful selection process (due to limited space and resources). Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, Japan. (I’ve visited it once before, five years ago.) It’s one of the best (if not the best) science museums I’ve been to because nearly all of its exhibits are great examples of this process.

A microscope set up at the Miraikan Museum in Tokyo that allows visitors to look at retinal cells derived from stem cells.

Miraikan has many exhibits that clearly were created because they highlight a cutting-edge, key scientific idea, and do so in a way that really engages visitors. Here I’ll explore some of the current biology-related exhibits that were surely made with these criteria in mind. If you’re a biology fan (or just enjoy learning more science in general) and will be visiting the Tokyo area any time soon, you’ll want to be sure to drop by Miraikan to check them out (along with the other incredible exhibits)!

Human Biology

  • The exhibit “Stories of One, Everyone, and You” basically explores human biology with a focus on how the brain functions (i.e., neuroscience).
  • This exhibit contains several different interactive activities, such as ones that show what different parts of the brain are used when processing different types of sensory input (e.g., auditory vs. visual) or creating and recalling memories, and ones that demonstrate how it can be difficult to distinguish between our own hand and an image of a hand superimposed on our own.


  • The exhibit “The Genome” features a giant model of how real DNA sequencing is done in scientific laboratories.
  • The DNA sequencing activity, where visitors can move around models of segments of DNA to understand how DNA sequencing is done, is a great way to show how an extremely common (but very abstract) technique works. (An impressive model of tRNA is also nearby.)
  • There’s also an accessible and engaging computer activity that allows visitors to create their own virtual insect by walking them through how different factors control the development of a typical insect. Rather complicated developmental processes are clearly explained in this quick and fun activity. (I fondly remembered doing it five years ago.)


  • The exhibit “Promoting Medicine Together” explores advances in the medical field (such as personalized medicine) and has several cutting-edge activities related to this.

The Environment and Resources

  • The exhibit “Earth Environment and Me” basically looks at how humans affect the environment, how the environment affects us, and what technological advances are being made to improve how we use the Earth’s limited resources. There is a model showing how resources are used and moved through the environment and discussion on how rice plants are being modified to produce plastics in a renewable way.

Microscopic Explorations

  • The “Life” exhibit includes several microscope stations where visitors can view actual living organisms and cells that are studied in real scientific laboratories.
  • Currently available for viewing under the microscope are tardigrades (Ramazzottius varieomatus) (amazing creatures that can live in a vacuum and were explored previously in Biology Bytes), very active C. elegans (microscopic worms, or nematodes), and two different stem cell-related specimens.
  • One of the stem cell specimens is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Although the sample is preserved, it is still amazing to see them in a museum, under a microscope. These cells are fascinating and promising because they function like human embryonic stem cells, but they can be made from an adult skin sample. (You can read more about these types of cells in the Biology Bytes post on Recent Breakthroughs with Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, on the blog All Things Stem Cell, or in the book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine.)
  • The other stem cell specimen is retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) cells that were derived from iPSCs (which are shown in the picture at the beginning of this post). It was particularly exciting to me to see these cells on display because my Ph.D. thesis was on deriving RPE from iPSCs and human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) (you can read more about these promising retinal cells in the resources linked in the previous bullet point).

Also of note – rice fish that are descendants of the first fish bred in space (in 1994) are swimming around on display at the museum, and some interesting discussion is given on life forms that live around geothermal vents and how the organisms may help us understand the origins of life on Earth.

So for a variety of cutting-edge, engaging, biology-related exhibits, be sure to check out Miraikan if you’re in the Tokyo area!

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