Citizen Science Project Manager Lucy Robinson introduces a Q&A with Dr Anne Jungblut for the Microverse:
In an earlier blog post, a group of students from Bedford Girls’ School described their recent visit to the Museum. The girls had taken part in The Microverse, collecting samples of microorganisms from buildings and sending them to the Museum for DNA analysis, and were keen to meet the scientists involved to find out more. We arranged for them to meet the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anne Jungblut, to ask her some questions about the project and her wider research.
We thought you might like to hear her responses:
Q. What inspired you to set up this project?
A. Of all the life on Earth, only a relatively small proportion are the plants, animals and fungi that we can see – the vast majority are microscopic. My research takes me all over the world, where I collect samples of microorganisms and study them using DNA technologies to better understand these important organisms. I’ve done a lot of work in the Antarctic, but I thought to myself that it would be really cool to also look at the microorganisms in the UK, in particular on buildings. There’s been very little research into the microorganisms that live on buildings in towns and cities to see what role they are playing in urban ecosystems. So I contacted Lucy and Jade in the Museum’s citizen science team as this research would require lots of samples to be collected across the country and I thought citizen science – collaborating with members of the public – could be a good option. Together we developed The Microverse project.
Q. What are you looking for in the data – what kind of patterns?
A. Firstly, I’m looking for the overall diversity of microorganisms. They are such an understudied group that these data will give us a baseline understanding of microorganism diversity on buildings. I’m also looking for differences between building materials – we asked participants to sample three different building materials so we will have a lot of different materials to compare.
We also asked you to record a number of different variables that might affect diversity for example the distance to the nearest road and the nearest vegetation. These variables show us possible pollution levels, or semi-natural habitats that microorganism may have colonised the wall from. I’m interested to see what influence the proximity to roads and vegetation/soil has on the microbial diversity.
I’m also keen to see whether unique locations have different communities of microorganisms. Some sample sites are quite unusual e.g. on land contaminated by heavy metals, and on a pier over the sea. Will these buildings have very different communities of microorganisms to the other samples?
This research will also allow us to formulate more detailed hypotheses and refine our research questions. We are also inviting participants to suggest new hypotheses and future directions for the research. Ideas can be emailed to email@example.com.
Q. How will the Museum judge how accurate the data are?
A. The schools and community groups taking part in The Microverse are carrying out exactly the same method to collect samples as a professional Research Assistant would have done. This means that samples need to be collected under sterile conditions, following a strict protocol.
When we were developing the project, we chose A-level students (or equivalent) as the main audience as they’re committed to science, and we felt they would be more likely to carry out the survey correctly and understand the importance of sterile working compared to other potential audiences we considered e.g. primary school students. Collecting samples in the right way is the first step to ensuring data accuracy.
Once we receive the samples, there are a number of ways we can check the accuracy of the data. After the PCR step, gel electrophoresis checks whether enough genetic material is present in the sample. The sequencing process also removes low quality sequences (ones that are too short in length) which will not give reliable results. The great thing about using DNA technologies for identification is that it’s very accurate and doesn’t rely upon human ability to make a correct identification.
Participants record details about their building surface, but we also ask them to send us photographs, so we can double check if we are unsure about the accuracy of a piece of information, or if it’s an unusual building surface that we need to be able to see to properly interpret the results.
Finally, when we sequence the data, the output shows us how many mitochondria sequences were generated which indicates how much animal DNA there was in the sample. If a sample had been contaminated e.g. by someone’s hands touching the swab, it would show up as a very high number of mitochondria and we would be able to exclude that sample from our analyses. Luckily this hasn’t yet happened.
Q. Have you seen any microbes in The Microverse samples that you haven’t seen before?
A. Not yet. Samples are still coming in and are being sequenced so we only have very early results from a few sample sites. I will know more when all the samples have been sequenced and analysed. The sequencing we are doing is not always able to identify a microorganism to species level, it may be identified to a Genus or Family. Where they are identified to species level, it takes time to work through the data and explore further any sequences that look particularly interesting. We are keeping The Microverse samples frozen in our Molecular Collections Facility so that we, and other researchers, can go back to them in years to come to conduct further research.
Q. What are the long-term impacts of your research?
A. I work in the polar regions where environmental change is happening at a very fast pace. The deep ice sheets in this area also hold a record of microbial life going back hundreds of years. Understanding the impacts of climate change on all life, not just microorganisms, is an extremely important area of research at the moment. Polar regions are very delicate habitats that have been changed by the introduction of non-native species e.g. reindeer in South Georgia which have had a massive impact on soil quality there. Understanding the microbial life within healthy soils can help us to restore these damaged habitats.
In the UK, microorganisms are largely beneficial, through cycling nutrients such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur. But they may also be affecting the colour, moisture levels and other characteristics of buildings – understanding these potentially negative impacts may help the conservation of historic buildings and monuments.
In a much longer-term view, it is likely that new active chemicals and medicinal drugs will be derived from microorganisms, so research into microbial diversity facilitates this.
Q. You described The Microverse as ‘citizen science’ – what do you mean by that?
A. Citizen science is the involvement of volunteers in scientific projects that contribute to expanding our knowledge of the natural world, through the systematic collection, analysis or interpretation of environmental observations. Many of the big research questions of our time require large datasets to be collected over large geographic areas. It just isn’t possible for professional scientists to travel the country gathering samples or observations, so we collaborate with members of the public who volunteer their time, effort and expertise.
The Museum has a range of different citizen science projects where you can help our researchers to better understand the natural world. We have a project photographing orchids for climate change research, one recording seaweed distributions around the UK coast to monitor the spread of invasive species, and online projects where you can copy information from handwritten labels on museum specimens to make these data available to our researchers and curators. If you want to see how you can get involved, have a look at the Take Part section of the Museum’s website.
Lucy Robinson is Citizen Science Programme Manager in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. She has been working at the Museum in the field of citizen science for 7 years, initially on the Big Lottery Funded OPAL project and has worked on projects studying earthworms, lichens, seaweeds, urban invertebrates, microorganisms and many other areas of biodiversity. Lucy has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Bristol and a MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from the University of Leeds.