Global Community of Scientists Tackles Fungal Invasion
Scientists crowdsource research to decode the genetics of a deadly tree pathogen.
John Innes Center/Sainsbury Laboratory, United Kingdom
Ash dieback is a fungal disease that can wipe out whole woods of ash trees. It is caused by an aggressive pathogen known as Chalara fraxinea that first emerged in Poland in the 1990s and has swept across many parts of Europe.
The disease was first reported in the UK in 2012 and it’s thought that as much as 90% of the country’s 80 million ash trees are under threat.
Speeding Up Slow Scientific Work
Speed is of the essence in trying to defeat the fungal attack. The traditional scientific method where research is carried out in secret and then reviewed and published in a peer-reviewed journal is too slow for an emergency situation. Not only that, but sometimes when data is available it’s not released into the public domain, limiting the number of people who can interpret the numbers and look for patterns of significance.
Scientists need information quick on what causes the pathogen to attack the ash, why some trees are resistant, how trees are damaged by the fungus, how trees react differently when infected and how this affects the pathogen.
Know Your Enemy
To get to this knowledge in a rapid time frame researchers have turned to the wisdom of the crowd for help in analyzing the genes of the fungus.
Genetic data from the host (infected and uninfected) and the pathogen is being posted on the OpenAshDieBack website. Those who want to help can download the data and look for genes of interest.
"You need to know your enemy before you can start to come up with solutions, and this work will enable us to do that," said Dr Joan Webber from the UK’s Forestry Commission's Forest Research agency, a research partner in the project.
When scientists understand what makes Chalara tick they can develop methods to halt or slow its spread.
The initiative is being run by the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Center in Norfolk, and it takes advantage of crowdsourcing’s power to marshal diverse expertise. Scientists from all over the world are taking part.
This on-going crowdsourcing project is already achieving results with analyses of sequencing patterns coming in from all quarters. Completed studies are published on the OpenAshDieBack website. They are helping researchers to form a bigger picture of what is going on when the pathogen attacks an ash tree.
For example, sections of fungal RNA have been identified, some of which appears to code for toxic proteins.
Speed does not mean less robust. One advantage of a crowdsourcing project like this is that there is a mini peer review process going on all the time as members of the collaborative community assess and interrogate findings and test assumptions.
The project is acutely aware that scientists need to be credited for their work and all those who contribute will receive full attribution for their input.
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