I am sitting on a Southwest Airlines flight heading to Denver for the American Society for Microbiology 2013 meeting. At 3 PM today I am scheduled to co-chair (with David Coil from my lab) a session on “Citizen Microbiology” (well the full title is Citizen Microbiology: Enhancing Microbiology Education and Research with the Help of the Public). The schedule of the session is at the bottom of this post but it promises to be very interesting and exciting (no bias here at all).
As far as I know, this is the first session ever on “Citizen Microbiology” at a large meeting of any kind. We held a small workshop at UC Davis in January of 2012 on Citizen Microbiology but that was quite small. I note – I use a very broad definition for Citizen Microbiology including basically any project that engages the public in some way to participate in a research project relating to microbes. This is the perfect time to have such a session at a large meeting and the ASM General Meeting is an ideal setting. There are a series of converging forces that makes this timing ideal including:
There is a growing appreciation of microbes and the role they play on the planet. Some of this appreciation is broad – covering all microbes – all the time – everywhere. But much of it is due to a growing interest in the microbes closer to us – those that live in and on us (the human microbiome) – those that live in and on plants and animals and other organisms we care about – and those that live in the places where we spend much of our time (the microbes of the built environment). I mean – come on – everyone is talking about fecal transplants now in public – in cover stories of the NY Times Magazine and in Ted talks.
- Technological and scientific advances have made it possible to better sample the microbes found in any particular location. Clearly, DNA sequencing technology and associated analytical tools are a central component of these advances, but other factors are important too.
- The world is becoming more and more digital which makes the sharing of information (which is key to Citizen Science) easier and better. And social media has made it easier to communicate and discuss actions like Citizen Microbiology.
- Citizen Science is growing by leaps and bounds in other areas (e.g., check out http://www.scistarter.com).
- Crowdsourcing (not the same thing as Citizen Science – more on this another time perhaps) is also growing in leaps and bounds.
- Crowdfunding is providing new ways to fund scientific activities.
- Sensors of all kinds are getting cheaper and easier to use and are being deployed widely.
- Many people are becoming more and more interesting in recording information about themselves and sharing it with others.
- The “open science” movement is making the literature, software, methods and data and more available to everyone with no or few restrictions thus allowing for more people in diverse environments to become engaged in research.
- Microbiology education and outreach is spreading with some great journalists and diverse other sources of information including hundreds of microbiology blogs and many other forms of social media being used.
These are but a few of the reasons why I believe the time is right for Citizen Microbiology. But there are also what I would call somewhat negative reasons why the time is right too. These include
- Germophobia is rampant and fueled by media hype and marketing forces.
- We have done, and continue to do, serious harm to our microbial world. Antibiotics are overused. Antimicrobials are in everything. More and more children and missing out on vaginal birth. And so on
- Although our understanding of the importance of microbes is everywhere, there are also many who are overselling what we know – claiming that probiotics will cure all ailments for example.
- Some information about microbes that is out there on the web is, well, less that ideal
- The ethics of engaging the public in studies of microbes are not fully appreciated by some and not completely understood by most.
So this is both an exciting and a critical time for microbes and microbiology. And I hope that this session will not only help launch the field of Citizen Microbiology, but will help get everyone to think about the bigger issues and how to move the field forward in the right directions. For there is so much we need to do and think about including
- Openness and sharing
- Analysis tools
And of course – the people at the session are not the only ones engaged in Citizen Microbiology or related activities (see a list we made a while back here). If you are doing a project please post something about it here. And if you are not doing a Citizen Microbiology project – well – why not? Get your act together.
Anyway – got to put away the computer as we land in Denver soon and I will rush off to the conference center, hopefully on time, to chair this exciting session. And I hope to see you there or have you follow online (check out the Twitter hash tag #ASM2013). And keep your eyes open for more excitement in this area.
Today’s session at ASM 2013:
Understanding Human Influence on Microbial Distribution Patterns in the United States: A Citizen Science Approach
G. Barguil Colares1, J. Marcell1, D. Smith1,2, J. A. Eisen3, J. Gilbert1,2;
1Argonne Natl. Lab., Lemont, IL, 2Univ. of Chicago, IL, 3UC Davis, Davis, CA.
Sequencing the Human Microbiome with Citizen Science
Z. Apte1, J. Richman2, W. Ludington3;
1uBiome, Inc, San Francisco, CA, 2Oxford Univ., Oxford, UNITED KINGDOM, 3Univ. of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.
UPDATE: Notes from the Session Added 5/23
Here are some notes from the meeting:
Meeting Report: ASM 2013 in Denver, Day 1
ASM 2013, Day 1: From Oceans to Guts
Citizens doing Science, or Science on Citizens? (ASM 2013: Post 1)
Symbionticism: ASM 2013 LINKS
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My storify embedded below