animals, astrobiology, cancer, disease, technology

Citizen Biology

Are you not a scientist by training but you’d like to help scientists do real research? Or maybe you are a scientist and would like to aid others in doing more investigations in your spare time. Whatever your background, there are actually many ways that you can now do real scientific research in your spare time, most of them from your own home computer. It’s thanks to citizen science, which is basically the practice of having people — needing no official scientific training — go through scientists’ mountains of data, or help collect data for scientists. Analyzing the data can range from categorizing pictures of distant galaxies to playing a game where you get points for solving the structure of a protein, and so much more in between.

FoldIt Screenshot
A screenshot from the popular citizen science game FoldIt. (Image credit: Animation Research Labs, University of Washington, Christoph Hausner)

Doing citizen science really helps researchers who have collected more data than they can feasibly analyze on their own. And there are many biology-based projects that people can participate in. Read on to find out about some that you could get involved with to start doing real science at home on your computer!

Under the Microscope

  • Worm Watch Lab: Watch videos of tiny worms to see when they lay eggs and help researchers better understand our genetics all at the same time.*
  • FoldIt: Play a puzzle-based video game to solve the structures of proteins and help us better understand and fight different diseases. In 2011, players helped solve the structure of a type of AIDS-causing virus in just ten days, while it had stumped researchers for 15 years. Also, Science Buddies has a science fair project idea based on playing Foldit.
  • EteRNA: Play a puzzle-based video game to solve the structures of RNA molecules.
  • Phylo: Play a puzzle-based video game to help analyze DNA-based data to help us better understand genetic diseases.
  • EyeWire: Play a game to help researchers map the human brain.
  • Cell Slider: Help cancer researchers fight cancer by looking at pictures of different types of cells under a microscope.*
  • The Cure: Help cancer researchers fight cancer by playing this challenging game, which requires real time and research to do.

In the Ocean and Other Waters

  • Hear Whales Communicate: Listen to, and categorize, recordings of whale sounds to help researchers understand the language of the whales.*
  • Seafloor Explorer: Look at pictures of animals on the ocean’s floor and categorize them to help researchers better understand what’s living down there.*
  • Plankton Portal: Look at pictures of different types of tiny plankton — vital ocean critters — from water samples to help us better understand water systems and their health.*
  • Creek Watch: Use an iPhone app to submit information about the quality of your local creek to help scientists track pollution and other potential water issues. For a similar project, see the World Water Monitoring Challenge.

In Space

  • SETI Live: Analyze signals coming from the Kepler Field to try and find life on another planet.*
  • Planet Hunters: Look at images of outer space to help scientists find planets that are orbiting around stars, like Earth.*

Animals of the Land and Air

  • Citizen Sort: Play a game to help researchers sort different types of plants and animals.
  • Bat Detective: Listen to, and categorize, calls made by bats to help us better understand how bats use sound.*
  • Snapshot Serengeti: Look at pictures taken by camera traps in the Serengeti National Park, in Tanzania, and classify what type of animals you see.*
  • Notes from Nature: Look at pictures of animal specimens in a museum and transcribe the details to create a digital record.*
  • Condor Watch: Look at pictures of critically endangered California condors to see if they have lead poisoning.*
  • AgeGuess: Guess the age of people based on pictures to help researchers better understanding aging biomarkers.

* These projects are hosted by Zooniverse, which now has over one million volunteers going through scientific data. You can check out the Zooniverse website (or the “further reading” section below) for many other types of projects (they do a lot more than just biology!).

For further reading:


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