Monday, 12 August 2013

New(ish) Zooniverse Project: Worm Watch Lab

This post is actually about a month out of date but I was reminded of it after some “citizen science” on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club this week. Back in January, I posted about mapping Mars with Planet Four (also following a Dara O’Briain show!) and the Zooniverse team behind it brought out a new project last month, classifying videos of tiny nematode worms in Worm Watch Lab.

I have a bit of a soft spot for the little nematode species, Caenorhabditis elegans, which is used in labs around the world as a model organism. Not only is it cool in its own right - it was the first animal to have its genome sequenced and has had the entirety of its developmental cell lineages mapped - it was the basis of one of my first collaborative projects in Southampton as well as my only joint publication with my wife. As a well characterised model organism with (perhaps) surprising genetic and biochemical similarities to humans, C. elegans worms are a big part of the 3R’s effort in animal research (replacement, refinement and reduction) across British life science.

Worm Watch Lab constitutes one such project in association with the Medical Research Project:

We need the public’s help in observing the behaviour of tiny nematode worms. When you classify on wormwatchlab.org you’re shown a video of a worm wriggling around. The aim of the game is to watch and wait for the worm to lay eggs, and to hit the ‘z’ key when they do. It’s very simple and strangely addictive. By watching these worms lay eggs, you’re helping to collect valuable data about genetics that will assist medical research.

With your classifications we can understand how the brain works and how genes affect behaviour. The idea is that if a gene is involved in a visible behaviour, then mutations that break that gene might lead to detectable behavioural changes. The type of change gives us a hint about what the affected gene might be doing. Although it is small and has far fewer cells than we do, the worm used in these studies (called C. elegans) has almost as many genes as we do! We share a common ancestor with these worms, so many of their genes are closely related to human genes. This presents us with the opportunity to study the function of genes that are important for human brain function in an animal that is easier to handle, great for microscopy and genetics, and has a generation time of only a few days. It’s all quite amazing!

To get started visit www.wormwatchlab.org and follow the tutorial.

I’ve had a little play and it is quite fun. Not an awful lot of egg-laying but its interesting watching them move as there are clearly behavioural differences between the videos. (I wonder if they will start recording reversals etc. in future.)

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