Citizen Science brings humanity and the microbiome to the world


                                              Badge from Beware Comics

Outsourcing is the reality of modern science. I’ve written posts on contract research organizations (CROs) and the pharmaceutical industry’s move to innovation hubs, but these are dry, corporate initiatives. They are important to our understanding of the business of science today, but where’s the humanity in a CRO? Where’s the joie de vivre in an innovation hub? 

Citizen science is the beating heart of science today. It’s inclusive outsourcing.  

No field of biology has embraced citizen science as enthusiastically as microbiome research, and the reception from the world community has been reciprocally enthusiastic. The success of projects like uBiome and American Gut illustrate the power of community involvement. Both the commercial uBiome and academic American Gut took universal engagement another step to additionally address the research-killing paucity of funding by crowdsourcing.

Give us your fecal samples, your skin swabs, your mouth swabs, yearning to be sequenced

uBiome raised over $300,000 on Indiegogo offering microbiome sequencing services similar to 23andMe in exchange for donations starting at $79. In addition to the monetary donation, they gave participants the option to relinquish ownership of their anonymous sample and results for development of population statistics and future research. After Indiegogo, uBiome continues to offer sequencing commercially with the same option to transfer ownership. They now have control over thousands of samples and a treasure of data that make scientists like me salivate. Unfortunately, we need to swallow and wipe our chins since uBiome is currently keeping their data close.

American Gut is the largest citizen science campaign to date. They have raised over $500,000 in one year on FundRazr and have over 3,000 fully sequenced samples. Working off the same principles as uBiome, they offer contribution levels starting at $99 and going up to thousands. Currently the highest donation has been $3,750 for a Functional Feces characterization.


Examples of American Gut donors, part of their “All the cool kids are doing it” approach (from left: author Michael Pollan, ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, and Mrs. USA 2011 Shannon Ford)

Unlike uBiome, American Gut is making their data publically available through the open-source Earth Microbiome Project and through the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI). They plan to publish their findings in several papers and hope other researchers apply these data ad libitum

Biased data or no data?

Crowdsourced microbiome initiatives are facing the same criticism of biased data as other crowdsourcing campaigns. Recently Steven Novella reviewed CureCrowd for Science-based Medicine (ultimately concluding it is too biased) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) published “From Conservation to Crowdsourcing” in 2011, which touches on the bias issue. It is true, citizen science data are biased to individuals who can afford to contribute financially, are aware of these initiatives, and are motivated to join in citizen science. However, we now have data where we had none before; data that did not rely on tax dollars or single-source private benefactors to generate; both routes that empirically take significantly longer and are lower yield than commercial efforts (e.g. NIH Human Genome Project vs. Celera) or now crowdsourcing (e.g. NIH Human Microbiome Project vs. American Gut). As a side note, according to American Gut’s website, it appears they are closely linked to the Human Microbiome Project.

As long as researchers acknowledge the bias, are committed to addressing the issue, and accept that their findings may require reassessment as less biased cohorts become available, then this is not an end game issue.

The larger issue is the proper application and analysis of all these heaps of data being shared. Elizabeth Beam’s Harvard Science Review article, “DATA: The bigger the better? A survey of analytical traps and tricks,” concisely summarizes this issue.  

Engagement beyond money and samples

The appeal of the microbiome to the general population goes beyond crowdsourcing. Manipulating your microbiota is all the rage and DIY projects abound on the internet. There are recipes for probiotic yogurts and other foods, and plenty of diets to alter and optimize your gut bacteria. However, the most impressive is the DIY fecal transplant on The Power of Poop. I hope never to need to self-administer this procedure, but I’m glad to know there is a step-by-step guide openly available should the need arise.


               Fecal transplant shopping list from The Power of Poop

 This DIY prevalence circles back to the humanity of citizen science and the positive implications of investment by the greater community in research. Crowdsourcing is a successful, if not perfect, route to doing valuable science while educating people and removing the image of scientists behind locked doors, hunched secretively over arcane experiments.

Citizen science is the proactive science of today and tomorrow. 


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