Smithsonian museums continue to be closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Biolistic Gene Transfer Process Shadow Box

Biolistic Gene Transfer Process Shadow Box

Usage conditions apply
Description (Brief)
This shadow box display demonstrates the biolistic gene transfer process, the firing mechanism of the gene gun. The object came from the offices of Biolistics Inc., a company started in 1988 by Dr. Ed Wolf and Dr. John Sanford in Ithaca, New York, to sell their biolistic gene guns. Biolistic gene guns are used to genetically transform plants by shooting microprojectiles (tiny bullets) covered in DNA into plant cells. It’s likely that this shadow box was used to help explain the firing process to potential investors or purchasers of the technology.
The firing mechanism of the gene gun required several steps, as shown here. A gunpowder charge (see object 1991.0785.03.2) or compressed air was used to accelerate a macroprojectile (see object 1991.0785.03.3), upon whose tip rested DNA-coated microprojectiles. The macroprojectile would be halted upon its impact with a stopping plate (see object 1991.0785.03.4). The stopping plate is the first large plastic disk shown here. A hole in the stopping plate was small enough to allow the microprojectiles to pass through, but large enough to halt the macroprojectile.
The second plastic disk shown here is an example of a fused stopping plate and macroprojectile (see object 1991.0785.03.5). The microparticles then continued to move forward, eventually penetrating the cells to be transformed. The triangular black shape represents the microparticles continuing forward after they have gone through the stopping plate. Cells to be transformed are represented by the round plastic beads.
To learn more about biolistic gene guns, please see gene gun prototype II (object number 1991.0785.02) or gene gun prototype III (object number 1991.0785.01.1).
Currently not on view
Object Name
shadow box display
place made
United States: New York, Ithaca
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
plastic (overall material)
average spatial: 20.3 cm x 25.4 cm x 3.9 cm; 8 in x 10 in x 1 9/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Prof. Edward D. Wolf
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Biological Sciences
Science & Mathematics
Biotechnology and Genetics
Biolistic Gene Guns
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.

Note: Comment submission on our collection pages is temporarily unavailable. Please check back soon!

If you have a question or require a personal response, please visit our FAQ or contact page.