Cheerleader helps discover novel bacterium

A cheerleader volunteering for a citizen-science project helped discover a novel bacterium from a seat at a football stadium at Coronado High School in San Diego.

Members of a citizen-science group called Science Cheerleader helped gather microbe samples by swabbing the school’s stadium seats and shared the samples with a project known as MERCCURI. Scientist David Coil and his team published a paper in PeerJ on Nov. 12 that names the new yellow-orange critter Porphyrobacter Mercurialis.

“Give me a P, Give me an O, Give me…. a yellow-orange member of the Erythrobacteracae family.” For the sake of cheering, might need to shorten the bacteria’s name to Porphy. Coil told us that many new bacteria are named every month, and that Porphy is not highly unusual. The bacterium is related to marine creatures and may have wafted from the nearby ocean to the stadium.

Just to add to the fun, the novel bacteria spent some time growing on the International Space Station, as part of the project. Porphy was not a standout – not faster or slower than the others. Just middle-of-the-road.

Moly_stain13porphyero-David-CoilTransmission electron microscopy of exponential phase culture of new bacterium in lysogeny broth. Photo used with Creative Commons license from PeerJ.

Taylor Hooks is the ex-professional cheerleader, and volunteer with Science Cheerleader, who sampled seats at the stadium. “I was the only person collecting samples at the event, so it must have been a sample I collected. It makes me very happy to have contributed in some way to a discovery of this nature.  It’s really amazing,” she told us in an email interview.

Microbiologist Coil is one of the lead scientists on the project and explained that this national citizen-science project gathered candidate microbes to fly in microgravity on the ISS.  The team selected 48 “candidates” for a growth competition. More information on MERCCURI here.

Hooks has been a volunteer for SciCheer for five years. She lives in Southern California and works in the medical imaging field, but is currently studying for her masters’ in business administration.

Coil works at the University of California, Davis, in the Eisen Lab. Citizen science is a particular passion of his and of lab leader Jonathan Eisen. The lab sent members to a national conference on Citizen Science in San Jose in February.

Coil admits cheering himself when he knew the paper was being published. He chose the name “mercurialis” for two reasons. The bacteria was not easy to grow and mercurial means temperamental. But he also liked using a part of MERCCURI for the bacteria’s name to honor the program.

Another cheerleader happy about the microbe is the woman who carries the mantle of “Science Cheerleader” founder – Darlene Cavalier. She is also the founder of SciStarter, the organization that recruited thousands of people to participate in the microbe collection effort. Darlene wrote at her site, “Our goal is to spur even more people to get involved. SciStarter created partnerships with the Science Cheerleaders (an organization of 300-plus current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders with science careers) and Pop Warner Little Scholars, a nonprofit  youth football and cheer group serving more than 400,000 athletes. Both groups helped promote Project MERCCURI. Learn more at www.scistarter.com.

Editor’s note: Sally James appeared on a panel about citizen-science microbiology at the 2015 Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose. She received partial travel reimbursement from the Eisen Lab.

The hairball of citizen science

The hairball is jargon for data scientists. It means a special graphic that illustrates intersections.

When I visited the Citizen Science Association’s first conference in San Jose, Calif., in February, it felt like a living hairball. Every one of the 600 people was already a networker, an accelerator, or somehow a person forced by curiosity to ask other people to help assemble science answers.

There were birders (Loon counters from Maine), microbiologists, physicists and policy wonks.  If some of you don’t know the delicious explosion of citizen science, please detour now to read about games of proteins, games of neuron-mapping, games of whale song matching and thousands of other projects here.

But like catching lightning bugs and magic in a bottle, there were people who thought the very labeling and defining of citizen science might break its tender wings. This first-ever conference tried to find the most common ground between projects and hoped that sharing best practices (and sharing conference rooms) would save some people time and trouble finding the right methods.

I don’t have answers for any of the wonderfully provocative questions I heard in San Jose. But I came home from #citsci2015 (as tagged on Twitter) newly impressed with the collective power of citizens. My own panel about microbiology included two projects where I donated samples: The Wild Life of Our Homes and Ubiome.

Our panel included California high-school science teacher, Bethany Dixon, DIY biology volunteer Patrik d’Haeseleer, David Coil and  Jenna Lang, both of the Eisen Lab at the University of California at Davis, Adam Robbins-Pianka of American Gut and Holly Menninger of Your Wild Life at  North Carolina State University.  Collectively, we bonded most over what  is not known about microbial ecosystems rather than what is known.

Studying the ecosystems that microbes create has been compared to discovering a new Amazon rain forest. It is tantalizing to find out that obese people and diabetic people have different microbes in their guts, but we are far from understanding why.  The microbiomes of individual houses differ, as my panel member Menninger is studying, but we may be years from understanding how and why. We were a panel of people at peace with puzzling complexity.

Imagine every one of the thousands of different microscopic creatures living in your gut playing an unknown and changing role in your life and your health. That’s quite a hairball, and untangling it will take years. I’m very glad to have met the people at #citsci2015 as passengers with me on this journey.

If you are pursuing citizen science in some way, please let me know. I will continue writing about it here.