It’s a grey chilly Sunday afternoon. This week-end’s uncertain weather has ruined your plan to take the kids to the swimming pool. They’re running around the house in a full demonstration of the seemingly inexhaustible energy that only children possess, threatening to drive you mental. Why not take them on a snail hunt? That will be the occasion to teach them a thing or two on evolution. And they will be helping science progress.
Does it bother you that your teenager spends a lot of time playing video or computer games? Introduce him/her to the game Phylo. He/she will still be spending time in front of a screen but you might feel better knowing that this time is put to good use. He/she is giving science a hand.
Snail hunting and playing computer games are only two of the many ways just about anybody can participate in scientific research. Because research is not exclusively for professional scientists. Amateurs and nonprofessional scientists can contribute as well. It’s called citizen science.
Knowing how many individuals of an endangered species there are and where they live can help to take measures to save this species. Measurements of temperature and snow levels around the globe can help to study the climate and how it’s changing. Though, to do this you need a lot of data. More data than a team of scientists has the time or the money to collect. But if many people give a little of their time counting animals or recording everyday temperature in their local area, soon there’s a lot of data available and it hasn’t cost much and hasn’t asked anybody a lot of effort.
Computers can do a lot of stuff faster and as well or better than the human brain. But for solving certain types of problem computers just can’t compete (yet?) with the human brain. For example, computers are quite bad at image recognition. They can’t reliably determine if a specific object is in an image or not. But the human brain does that perfectly well.
And with the world population at about 7 billions, there are many people out there to count and record observations and there are just as many human brains. Citizen science projects are tapping into this incredible and valuable resource. Today’s technologies – internet, mobile phone applications… – are making reaching all these people and collecting the data easy. Plus, people learn about science along the way.
So how does hunting snails help science? You’ve certainly all already seen banded snails. They live in our gardens, in hedgerows and along fields, and you can easily spot them when they come out after the rain. There are two species of banded snails, Cepaea nemoralis and Cepaea hortensis. You can distinguish the two species by looking at the edge of their shell at its opening. When the snail becomes an adult, the edge thickens forming a shell lip, which is white in Cepaea hortensis while it is brown in Cepaea nemoralis. In both species, the shells can have different colours – brown, pink or yellow – and harbor different patterns of bands – no band, a single band or multiple bands.
These differences are thought to be an adaptation of the snails to their environment. Snails living in shaded areas like woodlands often have a darker shell while snails living in grass are lighter-coloured and more stripy. That’s probably because the more similar the shell is to the background of the snail’s habitat, the less visible the snail is and the less risk it has of being spotted and eaten by birds. Song thrushes especially love banded snails. But in some areas the population of these birds have decreased over the last 30 years. If there are fewer predators, it becomes less important to be camouflaged, lighter snails can survive in woodlands and darker snails in grass so you would expect lighter shells to become more frequent in woodlands and vice versa. That’s evolution in action.
Darker shells are also more common in the north. Biologists think that’s because darker shells attrack more sunlight. Where it’s colder, darker snails have an advantage over lighter ones as they warm up faster and can then be more active. But the climate is changing and becoming warmer. So maybe, as with the song thrushes, the colors of the snail populations are changing.
That’s what the team of the Evolution MegaLab would like to know. They have historical records over the last 30 years of the number of snails for each type of shells all over Europe and they want to compare these records with today’s numbers. And that’s where they need a lot of people in every corner of the continent to collect the data. They’re asking citizens to go out in their gardens, in hedgerows and along fields to count the snails and record the color and band patterns of their shells so it will be possible to study the evolution of the snail population.
What about playing games? Biologists like to compare gene or protein sequences. Because by comparing the sequences they get to learn a lot about the genes or the proteins. For example, if one gene whose function is unknown in one species is very similar to another species gene whose role is well studied, you can make a pretty good guess that both genes do the same thing. Or if all patients with a disease have the same amino acid in a certain position in the protein while healthy people have another amino acid, there are chances that this is the mutation causing the disease. But to reveal similarities and differences between gene or protein sequences you first need to align their nucleotide or amino acid sequence.
Several computer programs have been developed to align gene or protein sequences but it’s a difficult problem for a computer. So there are inaccuracies in the alignments the computers produce, inaccuracies that lead to errors in analyses. And that’s where the human brain can help, you just have to make it fun. Turn the DNA or protein sequences into strings of blocks of different colors for each of the nucleotides or amino acids and you can turn sequence alignements into a game.
That’s what scientists did with Phylo. Players have to move the blocks horizontally so that most of the blocks of the same colors are aligned. The score depends on how well the blocks are aligned. And it works. The DNA sequences in Phylo are from regions of computer alignments that aren’t very good but, with the solutions from Phylo players, their accuracy can be improved up to 70%. The sequences are taken from DNA regions that control the expression of genes implicated in diseases so Phylo players are helping scientific research.
So what are you waiting for? You too can help research progress. And what’s more, it’s fun. Snail hunting or playing computer games aren’t your thing? Don’t worry, there are plenty of other projects. Just take your pick from the following websites:
Kawrykow A, Roumanis G, Kam A, Kwak D, Leung C, et al. (2012). Phylo: A Citizen Science Approach for Improving Multiple Sequence Alignment. PLoS ONE, 7 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031362