Ground-breaking research has revealed that genes make up only 2% of your DNA - so what's the rest of it for? A new display opening at the Science Museum takes a look.

A new understanding of how DNA works has come from a ground-breaking global study called ENCODE – the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements.

The study, carried out by 442 scientists from all over the world, reveals that genes make up only 2% of your DNA whereas at least 80% of your DNA contains ‘switches’ that turn your genes on and off in response to your environment. This means there are more genetic combinations - more potential versions of you - than scientists ever thought possible.

Graphical representation of epigenetics

Image courtesy of Curie Instute

Over five years, researchers found four million of these genetic switches – mostly in what everyone thought was ‘junk’ DNA.

The project also reveals that the way in which genes are switched on and off is largely affected by environment: that external factors can change our DNA and these changes can be passed to our children. Mechanisms like this are studied in a branch of science called ‘epigenetics’.

On 6 September 2012, the Science Museum opened a new display, Switch to a different you?, in the Who Am I? Gallery. It takes a closer look at ground-breaking epigenetics research, revealing new findings that will radically change your understanding of genetics and sense of human identity. The display will run until 5 December.

To launch the display, an exciting aerial silk performance took place in the gallery to artistically interpret key research findings. The four-minute performance was co-created by the contemporary science department, epigenetics experts from the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements research project, and aerialist Michele Laine of Viva Aerial Dance.

Find out more about the discovery on Nature.com