Here's the blog for our first Project of the Week, first posted on Facebook! It got such a good reception that we decided to start running it here on our blog too.
What does this project do?
It's a screensaver. You just download a program and it uses your computer's spare power to sift through huge amounts of data, for example on genetics to identify cancer markers.
What do I have to do?
Not much! Just go to World Community Grid, get a username and password, download the program and choose which of several projects (AIDS, childhood cancer, Zika virus, etc) you want to join. You can log in to see how many hours and how much data you've contributed.
What's Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at email@example.com. Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!
Alice met one of the World Community Grid staff at the Citizen Science Association Conference in Minnesota, USA, in May 2017. She asked how the genetics and drug testing projects worked and this is what she learned:
We know that some individuals are more prone to various types of cancer than others, and we know that there is a genetic link. So if someone is genetically predisposed, we would like to offer them the opportunity to be warned early so they can take steps to minimise the risks. However, such genes don’t wave their arms around and shout “ooooh look, we’re bad genes”. DNA, our cells’ “instruction manuals”, are made of incredibly long molecules, and we don’t yet know lots of the pages of them that write in possible risks and which don’t.
So, they way World Community Grid looks for these genes is this: Imagine that each DNA molecule is a long, long book (but not one you could read, follow the plot, or notice special things in). Every one of us has such a book; but everybody’s is a little bit different. There is no way to easily compare the two: you have to go through the entire string of letters. To do this kind of searching, they take samples from people who do get various types of cancer, and people who don’t, and place their “books” side by side to compare all the differences. Because these “books” are absolutely huge, this takes an extremely long time and computer power.
There is another World Community Grid project that tests the effects of drugs on various proteins. Like DNA, protein molecules are extremely large. However, they’re all different shapes, and being hundreds of units long these shapes won’t be simple (I recall one being described as “like a thorny bush”). The shape of a molecule predicts how it will behave – that’s what keeps biochemists and chemists so busy.
Predicting how something will behave also lets us predict how it will react when placed amongst different substances. Will they react? Will they change? What will they make? We could test this manually in laboratories. But to complete such tests – testing everything with everything else - would take many, many years, not to mention go through a lot of expensive substances. However, you can program computers to fit all the shapes and all the little electric charges that are found across a molecule together to predict what will happen.
I hope you enjoyed our first "Citizen Science Project of the Week"! Please share and please nominate your favourite project - see above for details!