Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Me, Myself, and My Microbes

By March 19th, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Comment

Participate in American Gut to find out what bacteria live in your body and help scientists gather data on the diversity of microorganisms that affect our health.

Explore the microbiome around and inside you with these citizen science projects!

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Bacteria usually get a pretty bad rap. Perpetrators of strep throat, food poisoning, hospital infections, the list goes on. But not all bacteria are insidious in their intentions–in fact, many are harmless and even friendly, including the trillions that tag along in and on our bodies on a daily basis. In return for providing these microorganisms with a comfortable and long-lasting residence, they perform a number of chores for us and proactively help maintain our health.

Notably, they extract energy out of the food we eat, aid in the development of our immune system, and fend off intruding pathogens. Bacteria live in multiple areas on the human body, but bacteria in the gut have received the bulk of scientists’ attention so far. And not without good reason–these bugs amount to a whole kilogram in an average individual’s gastrointestinal tract, meaning that on a yearly basis a human adult will excrete their own weight in fecal bacteria. Recent work has shown that bacteria in the gut environment play a causative role in weight gain, obesity, and malnutrition, and that sustained changes in diet can have substantial effects on the composition of these bacterial populations. So not only do the bugs in our gut affect our health and well-being, but our diet and lifestyle modulate what bacteria live there, giving the phrase “you are what you eat” a whole new meaning.

Thus far, most scientific studies on gut-residing bacteria have focused on specific cohorts of carefully selected individuals. As a result, these studies reflect our diversity “to about the same extent that Congress does,” as a team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder puts it. This team, led by microbial ecologists Rob Knight and Jeff Leach, wants to remedy current limitations by obtaining a larger set of bacterial data from a much more diverse population- basically people like you and me, or even literally you and me.

In a citizen science project called American Gut, Knight, Leach, and collaborators offer anyone living in the U.S. the opportunity to submit a biosample (from your skin, mouth, or fecal matter), and for a $99 donation they will process and analyze your sample and give you a detailed description of the microorganisms on your body, in your mouth, or in your gut (depending on the source of your sample). Additionally, the analysis offers you a relative comparison of your bacterial community to the thousands of other people who have participated in the project.

So what’s happening with all the data that’s being collected? American Gut asks participants to take a lifestyle survey and a detailed week-long dietary inventory to accompany their biosample. American Gut researchers and collaborators seek to associate different factors like smoking, veganism, or gluten intolerance to different microbial communities. ”We’re interested in whether we can pick up diet, geographical or seasonal associations. There are also some more specific projects being run through American Gut on inflammatory bowel disease, autism, and several other diseases” said Knight. Overall, scientists studying the human microbiome (or the collective genome of host-associated bacteria) want to know which of these factors make a difference in shaping our microbial populations and what that means for our health. By crowd-sourcing data from all walks of life, American Gut is amassing what’s arguably the largest and most diverse set of information on host-associated communities to start discerning this information. “It will substantially expand our knowledge of the kinds of microbiomes that are out there, will give us a better understanding of what matters and what doesn’t (in terms of factors and controls), and will perhaps allow us to start seeing similarities among different disease states (depending on how many people who are willing to share de-identified medical information sign up).”

Using a citizen science approach offers the benefit of having a large pool of data to work with, but there are some downsides. “The main challenge is cleaning up errors in the data, for example, we don’t really think we have participants who were born in 1060 or in the future (and we don’t know how they managed to bypass the web form validation either),” said Knight. In line with its citizen science goals, Knight and Leach have prioritized making the project open source and open access. The data, in the form of sequences of bacterial DNA (with no personal information), will be publically available for anyone to obtain and analyze. Most academic labs don’t have the funding to generate this type of data, so American Gut enables researchers to independently pursue their own hypotheses about the microbiome and its complex interplay with the environment and human health.

Interested in knowing what bugs are in and on your body? Perhaps you want to know how your bacteria change over time or what bacteria you share with a family member or significant other? Check out different options for your donation to American Gut. Even biosamples from dogs are welcome!

Image: Courtesy of Rob Knight at American Gut

More reading on the microbiome:

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html

2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/microbiome-graphic-explore-human-microbiome/


Sheetal R. Modi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University where she studies how bacteria develop and spread antibiotic resistance. She has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and when she’s not growing her bacterial cultures (and repeatedly killing them), she enjoys science communication and being outside.

 

Meet Your Invisible Neighbors: Microbes in SPAAACE (and at home)!

By March 12th, 2014 at 11:20 am | Comment

They’re all around us–microbes, that is! Think of them as the neighbors you’ll never really meet. Here are some projects to help you explore the microbiome on earth, in space, and inside our own bodies.

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Project MERCCURI

It’s time! Microbes collected by citizen scientists are heading to the International Space Station this weekend! This project from UC Davis, SciStarter, Science Cheerleader, Space Florida and Nanoracks still needs your help collecting microbes from shoes and cellphone. Find out why, here. Get started!

 

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American Gut

Compare the microbes in your gut to those in the guts of thousands of other people in the US and elsewhere and help researchers learn more about the influence of microbes. American Gut is a project built on open-source, open-access principles. Get started!

 

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uBiome

uBiome is the world’s first effort to map the human microbiome through citizen science. The microbiome are the bacteria that live on and within us. Take a look at yours! Get started!

 

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GoViral

Think you have the flu? Join GoViral participants who report symptoms weekly using a website or mobile app and help researchers in the process. Get a Do-It-Yourself flu test kit, too. Get started!

 

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Clumpy

Help classify plant cell images by their “clumpiness” and give insights into the progression of bacterial infection in plant cells. Get started!

 


Want to bring citizen science into the classroom? Check out our Educators Page to learn more about how to integrate projects into your curriculum.

SciStarter and Azavea (with support from Sloan Foundation) spent the last year investigating developments in software, hardware, and data processing capability for citizen science. Here’s what we found.

Calling hackers and developers! SciStarter is organizing pop-up hackathons to develop open APIs and other tools to help citizen scientists. Contact the SciStarter Team if you’d like to join us in Boston, Philly, NYC, or Washington, DC in April! Email info@scistarter.com

Want your project featured in our newsletter? Contact jenna@scistarter.com

Liberty and Science for All: Project MERCCURI press release

By January 31st, 2014 at 8:52 am | Comment

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the Independence National Historical Park for giving me access to the Liberty Bell. I had a lot of fun collecting microbes from this national treasure in my hometown!

Happy to announce that the microbes from the Liberty Bell have been selected to fly on the International Space Station where their growth rates will be analyzed and compared to their counterparts back at the UC Davis lab! We will be announcing each selected microbe over the course of the next two weeks, with Philly first.

This research is part of Project MERCCURI, a citizen science project from UC Davis, Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, to examine the diversity of microbes on Earth and on the International Space Station.

Check out this particular microbe’s very own trading card! Here’s an excerpt:

Where we found it: On the Liberty Bell (Philadelphia, PA)

Why it’s awesome: This is an important industrial organism, used for the production of penicillin, vitamins, various drugs, and numerous enzymes

Fun fact: The species name of this microbe means “big beast” and it is among the largest bacteria ever discovered

In addition to the microbes from the Liberty Bell, six other microbes from Philadelphia were selected by UC Davis researchers to blast into space for research at the International Space Station. Here are links to images and more information about the microbes collected from the following sites in Philadelphia and selected to fly on the International Space Station:

Chemical Heritage Foundation
Philadelphia Phillies
Philadelphia 76ers
The Franklin Institute
The Academy of Natural Sciences (microbes collected by St. Peter’s School students)
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School
WHYY studio

A total of 48 samples were selected from across the country.

Here’s more information about this project:

Davis, CA. (Jan. 30, 2014) — Microbes collected from Philadelphia landmarks will soon blast into orbit for research and a microgravity growth competition on the International Space Station (ISS). This citizen science project, known as Project MERCCURI, investigates how microbes from different places on Earth compare to each other and to those found on the International Space Station.

Led by the Science Cheerleaders (current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers), thousands of people across the United States participated in the project. Several Pop Warner cheer teams swabbed practice fields, shoes, and cell phones for microbes. Other people collected microbial samples at NFL, NBA, and MLB stadiums; from schools; from landmarks like the Liberty Bell, Sue the T-Rex, the statue of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; and during events including Yuri’s Nights, a series of gatherings across the country to commemorate the first human in space.

The microbes they gathered were examined by the “microbiology team” in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Eisen at the University of California at Davis. The team selected 48 microbes (SEVEN of which are from Philadelphia!), which, with approval from NASA, are to ride the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the Space Station for further research. The rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in early March.

The public will be able to follow Project MERCCURI as it continues over the next several months via the web site SpaceMicrobes.org. The site will include updates from the research on the Space Station including results of the “microbial playoffs” growth competition. The site also features free interactive visualization tools, lesson plans for teachers, and even trading cards that include photos and the details of each microbe selected for the project, as well as their importance.

In addition to the research in space, thousands of additional samples collected by the public are being analyzed further at UC Davis and by the lab of Dr. Jack Gilbert at Argonne National Laboratory. The microbes found in these samples are being assayed using DNA sequencing technology, and the resulting data will be made available to the public and also integrated with results of the Earth Microbiome Project. Scientists hope to gain insights into what is living at the ISS, how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space, and to compare growth of microbes on Earth and in microgravity. Philadelphia 76ers fans will have the opportunity to participate in this part of the research during Science at the Sixers night on 2/18 when the 76ers host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We are in the midst of a revolution in our ability to study the hidden world of microbes found throughout the planet,” said Jonathan Eisen, Professor at UC Davis and leader of the microBEnet (microbiology of the built environment network) team doing the microbiology side of Project MERCCURI. “One area of growing interest is in studying the microbes living right around us – in our buildings – on our phones – and elsewhere. The Science Cheerleader group has allowed us to get thousands of people to not only think more about the microbes among us, but to also participate in a microbial diversity research project. And those people have helped us get more samples than we have been able to obtain previously.”

“A lot of people ask us *why* we’re sending microbes into space,” said Dr. David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis. “Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spaceflight but also has the possibility of giving us new insight into how these microbes behave in built environments on Earth.”

“This initiative is not just about significant research,” said Darlene Cavalier, a former 76ers cheerleader and Founder of Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, both based in Philadelphia. “It’s about engaging the public in that research. Microbes that were collected at Georgia Tech are taking a ride on the International Space Station. They’re the subject of research by microbiologists and astronauts. We hope that inspires youngsters as well as adults to become more aware of and involved in science.”

Project MERCCURI is coordinated by Science Cheerleader, SciStarter.com, and UC Davis, in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory. The Project is made possible by Space Florida, NanoRacks, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Note to editors: To arrange interviews with the research team at UC Davis, members of the Science Cheerleader or SciStarter teams, or with local groups that participated in collecting the microbes, please email Claire LaBeaux, claire@prclaire.com.

Image: Courtey of Darlene Cavalier

This post originally appeared on the Science Cheerleader blog.

12 Days of Christmas-y Citizen Science

By December 12th, 2013 at 10:56 am | Comment

Tis the season for citizen science!

Make sure you’re on Santa’s “nice list” this year. Lend your hands, hearts and brains to science during these 12 days leading up to Christmas!

On the 1st day of Christmas, the Alliance for Saving Threatened Forests gave to me:

A chance to monitor the invasive insects that attack both hemlocks and Fraser firs (the most popular Christmas Tree in North America).

On the 2nd day of Christmas, Audubon gave to me:

Two turtle doves that I spotted during the Christmas Bird Count, which takes place December 14 through January 5 each year! The count is the world’s longest running citizen science project.

On the 3rd day of Christmas, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center gave to me:

Three Chinese mitten hens (female crabs) on the east coast of the United States. Mitten Crab Watch needs our help to determine the current distribution status of the mitten crab in the region.

On the 4th day of Christmas, Audubon gave to me:

Four or more calling birds that I “adopted” for the holidays. Through December 31st, anyone can adopt a bird for someone special, and Audubon will send them a personalized holiday card showcasing the adoption and an Audubon gift membership.

On the 5th day of Christmas, geographers at Wilfrid Laurier University gave to me:

Five frozen skating rinks! This winter, you can track climate change through backyard skating rinks by taking part in Rink Watch. Just put in the location of your backyard rink on a map and record days you can skate.

On the 6th of Christmas, Seattle Audubon Society gave to me:

A chance to help seabird researchers create a snapshot of geese density on more than three square miles of near-shore saltwater habitat.

On the 7th day of Christmas, the Swan Society of the University of Melbourne gave to me: 

The MySwan project to report sightings of tagged black swans around the world. After you submit your sighting, you’ll get an instant report about the swan, with interesting information about its history and recent movements.

On the 8th day of Christmas, Zooniverse gave to me:

The Milky Way Project, a chance to help scientists study our galaxy, as well as the Milky Way advent calendar and even Milky Way tree ornaments!

On the 9th day of Christmas, the European Space Agency gave to me:

Citizen scientists doing our favorite dance: the robot! By flying a Parrot AR drone in virtual space, you can help create new robotic capabilities for space probes and contribute to future space exploration.

On the 10th day of Christmas, Computer Science Education Week gave to me:

Ten million students leaping into the world of computer programming. During the week of Dec. 9-15, students will take part in the Hour of Code. But it doesn’t stop there – tutorials are available all year round!

On the 11th day of Christmas, the University of Washington gave to me:

SingAboutScience, a searchable database where you can find content-rich songs on specific scientific and mathematical topics. These singers sure have some pipes!

On the 12th day of Christmas, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation gave to me:

The Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey to help hunters survey the population of ruffed grouse during breeding season.

If you’re fortunate to experience a white Christmas, consider sending your snow depth measurements to cryosphere researchers at the University of Waterloo’s Snow Tweets project. They want to use your real-time measurements to help calibrate the accuracy of satellite instruments currently measuring snow precipitation.

Happy holidays from the SciStarter team!

FluSurvey: Understanding and Tracking Influenza Trends in the UK

By December 8th, 2013 at 2:20 am | Comment

Winter is here! Check out more winter weather themed citizen science projects at Scistarter.

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Here in the northern hemisphere, by this time of year, the signs of winter are nearly fully developed. Pea coats to defend us from the cold, denuded forests, grasses in gowns of morning white, and, of course, symptoms of the flu (otherwise known as influenza) around our daily interactions. Be it a cough, a runny nose, or untimely sweats, being surrounded by these unpleasant yet familiar symptoms make it seem like the dreaded flu is around every corner.

As it happens, where the flu is and who has it makes a big difference in how we understand the spread of influenza and who might be vulnerable or at risk. FluSurvey UK is one of a few citizen science projects in the world that tracks the movement and abundance of influenza-like illnesses, which is any kind of sickness that looks like the flu but can’t be confirmed without lab work asserting the presence of the virus. FluSurvey participants, however, also add background information from occupation, commute patterns, and socioeconomic status to dietary habits, average contact with old and young people, and whether or not they’ve been vaccinated, painting a vivid picture of the population.

This helps Dr. Alma Adler, who heads FluSurvey and a fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “uniquely… get information on risk factors for influenza-like illnesses.” The data provided by FluSurvey participants showed, for instance, that train ride actually does not increase your risk of contracting flu-like illnesses since participants who used public transportation actually reported less flu symptoms than those who used private transportation. This was a bit of a surprising find, since influenza tends to be communicated through droplets expelled into the air by infected people, and then sucked in somehow by healthy people. On the other hand, we all also know that children, cute as they can be, are excellent disease vectors as well. FluSurvey showed that people who come into regular contact with children were at a higher risk for influenza-like illnesses and that flu cases rise more rapidly when schools are open than when they are closed. This is good news, considering the kids will soon be on winter break, and people can venture into a cleaner world.

In the past, this kind of analysis would have been impossible. Flu surveillance once had to rely on reports from general medical practitioners and hospitals, which left epidemiologists fumbling for an accurate cross-section of the population. The trouble being that only a subsection of sick people will go to the doctor. Unlike FluSurvey, Dr. Adler says, “Doctors’ reports are not linked to any kind of background information.” And while the data from FluSurvey is only a proxy for the actual presence of influenza, it seems to be robust. Dr. Adler says they “compare [FluSurvey’s] influenza-like-illness peaks to when we know there are peaks in laboratory confirmed flu cases. Generally, our data match up fairly well,” showing that people are reporting flu in the survey when there is honest-to-god flu flying around.

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U.S. map of user-reported data of flu symptoms

While FluSurvey UK is only available to our British friends, it’s a part of the European Influenzanet which has surveys in ten different countries. For those of us in the U.S.A., we have to rely on a similar health map called Flu Near You, which asks people to report flu-like symptoms and monitors influenza but doesn’t collect any other data. This might change in the future, as crowd-sourcing data collection and citizen science is becoming more and more popular in epidemiology. Citizen science could, in theory, provide a study population limited only by the number of people with a computer and access to internet for the same or even a smaller cost.

Data from FluSurvey has recently informed a new UK immunization scheme that targets vaccinations at children (since they’re a major risk factor). It has also partnered with the British Science Association to get more children involved with the project. The CDC has similar flu monitoring systems available.

If you’re in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, you can join FluSurvey UK or find your country’s FluSurvey at Influenzanet. If you’re in the States, Flu Near You is always happy to hear about your illness too.  And if you haven’t yet, remember to get a flu vaccination if you can since, as Dr. Adler says, “That is the only real risk factor you can do something about.”

For more information on influenza, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s information website, immunization scheme, and the government influenza surveillance program, FluView.

Image: DOD, FluNearYou.org


Angus R. Chen is a research assistant at Princeton University, where he does geochronology research using uranium and lead isotopes from zircon crystals. Previously, he was a research intern at the Harvard Forest, studying the impacts of climate change on soil. He recently graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in environmental science and creative writing. When he’s not in the lab admiring rocks and then pulverizing them, he writes poetry, fiction, science articles, and makes cool videos.