Citizen Scientists Accelerate Bio Progress

By  |  June 27, 2014, 4:51 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


From left, David Kirkpatrick, Eri Gentry, Ryan Bethencourt, and David Haussler at Techonomy Bio in Mountain View, Calif.

As advances in the biological sciences expand, so does their influence on every facet of life. And the people powering that expansion are not just traditionally trained scientists—they’re also regular folks like you and me. Our recent Techonomy Bio conference reaffirmed the importance of citizen scientists, taking a look at how they’ll impact the future of bio. As the life sciences spread to embrace more people, more fields, and a more urgent sense of openness, progress is not only being democratized, it’s being accelerated.

Our first annual Techonomy Bio, held June 17 at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, explored the systems of life through a wide range of panel discussions, including “Participatory Biology,” a conversation that examined how ordinary people are involving themselves in science.

The session, moderated by Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick, convened traditional scientists Ryan Bethencourt of Berkeley BioLabs and David Haussler, director of the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, with Eri Gentry, a self-taught scientist who left the world of finance to explore “a childlike curiosity” that eventually led her to co-found the Bay Area biotech hackerspace BioCurious.

Gentry, who is also a research manager at Institute for the Future, says we need to find ways to enable more people “to actually get in on the game” of bio, whether they’re artists, musicians, economists, game developers, science hobbyists, or anyone else. By involving more sectors of society, Kirkpatrick added, “we will discover more and discover it faster.”

So how do we draw in more people? We give them more information.

Panelists agreed that opening data opens doors. In making information more accessible to the public for consumption, contribution, and collaboration, people who formerly felt excluded are now being empowered to participate. Increased involvement, in turn, leads to expanded knowledge, as we gather data that’s more complete and more collectively understood.

“I think it’s a proven fact that when you open up the information that we are gathering now in the scale of petabytes … that everything moves faster. So it’s all about opening up the data,” said Haussler, who is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The evolution of human genome sequencing, for instance, has shown us that allowing everyone to look at one dataset improves research processes and drives discovery. Again, unlocking data unlocks possibilities.

This maxim is perhaps most powerful in the realm of cancer research, which looks for patterns at the DNA level to point the way to who might be susceptible to certain types of cancer. Identifying patterns relies, of course, on having a dataset vast enough to make comparisons. Added Haussler: “You cannot learn anything about yourself if you only have information about yourself. It’s all about comparison to the rest of the world.”

Gentry, too, emphasized the importance of crowdsourced research in identifying illness and disease, as in the case of her father, who had been incorrectly diagnosed with fatal emphysema. By filtering through online posts, Gentry was able to determine he instead had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder. “For me that was a sea change,” she said. “I started respecting the wisdom of the crowd or those individual researchers, as they were in my mind, and wanted to follow suit.”

But, as Bethencourt pointed out, participatory biology isn’t just about driving discovery, it’s also about driving the economy. In launching Berkeley BioLabs, an accelerator for biotech innovation, Bethencourt aims to cultivate consumer biotech by bringing a business angle to the arena. “The economic potential of biotech from a consumer perspective is huge,” he said.

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