Sunday, May 17, 2009

Citizen science - distributed computing

Interested in searching out aliens? Want to help find a cure for cancer or muscular dystrophy? Discover more effective AIDS drugs? Breed more nutritious rice? Then try distributed computing. Distributed computing is the use of many separate but networked computers, each running the same program, to solve complex problems. When volunteers download the software for a particular project, their computers quietly set to work using idle processing power to sift through enormous data sets or crunch through intricate calculations. The combined efforts of many thousands of computers can make otherwise unworkable research possible.

Distributed computing is perhaps the most indifferent type of citizen science. You can participate without knowledge, effort, or observation. Nonetheless, these projects are valuable teaching tools. The home pages of most distributed computing projects include detailed information on the science involved, written specifically to capture the attention of non-scientists. Many include blogs, activities, and links designed to keep participants informed and engaged. Others have forums with often lively debate over the merits and problems of various projects. The range of projects is broad enough to include work that applies to any biology curriculum and that should appeal to most students. Besides the basic science of these projects, distributed computing also can be used to explore other topics, such as the ethical and practical implications of intellectual property rights and patents related to organisms, drugs, genes, and other biologic material, and the competition between diseases for funding and public attention.

Here are a few good places to get started. Googling distributed computing and volunteer computing will bring up many other resources.

SETI@home is the largest and best known distributed computing project. Users scan through radio signals from space searching for patterns that could indicate extra-terrestrial life.

Folding@home examines the links between the structure of proteins and diseases such as mad cow, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

BOINC is a software system that many distributed computing programs run on. The home site acts as a clearinghouse for projects, and includes tips on how to evaluate and choose programs. BOINC allows volunteers to divide up their computer time among multiple projects. Projects include work on malaria control, climate modeling, the evolution of DNA sequences, and the genetic links to disease.

The World Community Grid is dedicated to “projects that benefit humanity.” Current projects includes research on drugs targeting dengue fever, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and cancer, on new strains of rice to combat famine, and on finding more efficient materials for use in solar cells.

Image - Lion, drawn by Morito Iokawa, age 5. Died of acute lymphocytic leukemia at age 6. The Help Fight Childhood Cancer Project is a distributed computing project run through the World Community Grid. Image credit - Children's Cancer Association of Japan.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine flu (what else?)

The H1N1 virus
I’m confident there isn’t a biology class anywhere that hasn’t already talked about the swine flu. Or any biology blog either. But the flu and its fallout are going to be with us for a while, so I thought I’d post some links that might be helpful. Please comment with other good resources that you’ve found worthwhile.

Swine flu
  • The CDC’s H1N1 Flu page has the latest information on the current outbreak. Press releases, maps, prevention and treatment information, twitter updates, and photos.

  • Wired Science covers speculation on possible links between the virus and factory farms and the search for the ‘smoking pig.’

  • Reuters Swine Flu section is an archive of news articles, videos, and photographs of the current flu outbreak. It’s a good source for examining media coverage and public sentiment about the flu situation

  • The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health have a very thorough review of influenza in general. It includes fact sheets, Q&A’s, tutorials, images, and links to almost everything you’d ever need to say about flu.

  • The pages on Flu Wiki aren’t consistent in quality but it does have a lot of information and is quite accessible to non-biologists.

  • describes how government agencies plan for influenza outbreaks and monitor national and international flu trends.

  • This World Health Organization chart describes the Pandemic Alert Levels being used internationally to characterize the stages of this and other pandemics.

  • The Great Pandemic is a Dept. of Health and Human Services site with terrific information on the social and medical context of the 1918-1919 influenza outbreak. Many of today’s swine flu worries draw on this event.

Every health scare is accompanied by a rash of unscientific, often flat-out crackpot, ideas as to its cause and cure. Bloggers are often the first line of defense against pseudoscience – independent scientists and health professionals, and even well-informed laymen can respond with a speed and vigor that government employees can rarely match.

  • Beyond the Short Coat takes on the notion that enemas can prevent swine flu.

  • Repectful Insolence addresses the enema claim too, and includes a particularly nice video on pseudoscience in general.

  • is a good place to search for analyses of swine flu claims and coverage, but I’d be careful about directing students there because the commentary can get a bit rough.

Photo credit CDC/ C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish