Genome Decoders is our UK-wide participatory research project in collaboration with the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS). Working with the Sanger Institute’s Parasite Genomics group and the European Bioinformatics Institute’s Wormbase team, we’ve established a network of over 90 secondary schools across the UK who are helping to generate a quality reference genome for the human whipworm (Trichuris trichiura).
The project was officially launched at the Wellcome Genome Campus in September 2017 and to date has involved 2469 students from 94 schools across the UK.
“It’s great to see the progress the students involved in this project are making and it’s promising that so many UK teens are committed to helping decode the genome of this parasite. Producing an annotated genome could help reveal a new way to target this neglected tropical parasite, and in the long run potentially reduce the number of children that suffer from it. To be involved in such an important collaborative project is incredibly exciting and shows that everyone can make an impact in science.” Dr Faye Rodgers, Principle Bioinformatician, Wellcome Sanger Institute.
Why the whipworm?
Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) affect millions of children in Asia, Africa and South America in which there are many poor areas without sanitation.
One of these NTDs, Trichuriasis is caused by a parasitic worm known as the Human whipworm. Children can become seriously infected with these worms when living with conditions of poor sanitation, and the infection causes diarrhoea, abdominal pain, malnutrition and developmental problems. This disease can have chronic social and economic impact on these communities, creating a relentless cycle of poverty.
Studying the whipworm can help scientists to find new ways of treating and preventing trichuriasis. Scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute have sequenced the genome of the human whipworm. This is the complete set of DNA instructions that makes up the whipworm. But we need to make sense of all these instructions to understand the biology of the worm and to find new ways to fight the disease.
The whipworm is responsible for millions of cases of neglected tropical disease around the world. Through this project, pupils in the UK and Ireland are helping the research effort aimed ultimately at improving the health of their peer groups in these distant countries.
How does the project work?
The starting point for any modern biology challenge is to understand the genome, the instruction manual for the organism. Not only must the genome be sequenced, it also needs to be annotated. This is the process of identifying the regions of the genome that code for proteins, which do the work in cells. Computers programs can do this, but trained human eyes very often do a better job.
Students are given a set of training resources (videos, guided training examples and webinars) to help them understand how to identify gen structures from DNA and RNA sequence data. After training, students are given a section of the genome to review and annotate. Their genes are submitted and checked by informaticians at Sanger and EMBL-EBI.
Launching the project
The project was launched here at the Wellcome Genome Campus in September 2017 and received coverage on Radio 4’s World at one programme.
What do the students and teachers have to say about the project?
Maria Sellers, aged 18 from Joyce Frankland Academy Newport Secondary School, made the greatest number of annotations. She was attracted the concept of working to help solve a real-world problem alongside scientists. She started the project when she was in Year 10 and continued until Year 13.
“I really enjoyed working with IRIS and feel incredibly lucky to have been able to take part in Genome Decoders. Not many people my age have the opportunity to work alongside scientists, and even fewer are able to claim that they have participated in an effort to create a vaccine for a Neglected Tropical Disease. I have learnt not just about genetics, but about their practical application in combatting disease. I have spent time in a cutting-edge laboratory alongside researchers, and acquired new skills such as writing an informative document and filming instructional videos.”
Lavanya, Year 12 student from Lampton School
“I feel very honoured to have been part of the genome project. This experience will remain unforgettable for me, as I’ve learnt so many new skills and I’ve also been able to help scientists in the process of making a vaccine which has the potential to improve the lives of many people. I am very grateful for IRIS giving us the opportunity to be a part of scientific research.”
Tolulope Awoniyi, student from the Oratory School
“It’s a great reassurance to know everything we learn in our chemistry and biology classes isn’t being taught in vain. We get to see first-hand that scientists apply this knowledge each day to their research, and it is empowering that they have faith in us to aid in this research. It goes to show that you can still make an impact on the world of science today regardless of your age.”
Razika Berboucha, Physics Technician from Lampton School
“Thank you to the Institute of Research in Schools (IRIS) who made scientific research accessible to school students. I am very pleased to have brought the project to the students. Not only have I learned how to curate genes, but I also shared the knowledge with the students as well. Over the four years of our participation, I feel I gave students an opportunity to be part of something very important by helping researchers to create a vaccine against the whipworm.”
You can also find out more information about the project from our partner the Institute for Research in Schools.