by Lisa Keilhofer

Digital Crowd Funding for the Microbiome – become Part of Research!

A project initiated by IBM Corporate Citizenship consists now of about 650.000 individuals and over 460 organizations.
A project initiated by IBM Corporate Citizenship consists now of about 650.000 individuals and over 460 organizations.

Microbiome Research has gone through a rapid development over the past few years. Above all, the decoding of the gut microbiome was boosted by modern sequencing techniques. On the contrary, research on our skin microbiome has only just started (see also: Live or dead bacteria in skincare). The same goes for the lung microbiome. However, you sometimes get the feeling that doing research on the human microbiome is like exploring the dimensions of the entire universe – and with a total of 30 trillion (that is million million!) organisms dwelling in and on us, this seems an even more legitimate comparison.

Let’s explore this fascinating universe within us!

The exploration, or better sequencing, of these thousands of fellow occupants, is a project of almost unmeasurable scope. However, sequencing is a worthwhile mission, because as we know by now, most of these microorganisms can be considered as friends. They activate our immune systems, and boost our performance. At the same time, we are aware of the fact that a combination of genetic disposition and adverse composition of the microbiome encourages diseases like Crohn Disease and others.

We know that it would be the best for our microbiome to live a life close to nature, with healthy nutrition and sufficient contact to animals. At the same time, we know that our modern world is quite the contrary to most of the people and that we urgently rely on the scientific findings (and possible therapeutic approaches).

The solution comes with the 21stcentury: so-called supercomputers, which are computers accessing a shared main memory and draw their immense processing power from many processors.

Become Part of World Community Grid!

With this article we would like to draw your attention to one possibility of achieving that goal. It is the fascinating project of >>>World Community Grid:

The idea behind it is that many individuals (or institutions of companies) provide their spare processing capacity and join to build a supercomputer, providing science with the much-needed processing power. The project was initiated in 2004 by IBM Corporate Citizenship and consists now of about 650.000 individuals and over 460 organizations. Until today, over 30 scientific research projects were supported, research on HIV/aids and cancer, among others.

Also research on the microbiome is on the >>> agenda: In only 6 months, more than 200.000 protein structures were deciphered thanks to the huge processing capacity of numerous supporters. This is about one third of all known protein structures in our microbiome. The project was initiated by the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Rob Knight, well-known to readers of our pages (e.g. Is dirt good?), is part of the Center for Microbiome Innovation research team, and also part of this project.

And the project is still ongoing – and will be for a couple of years. The goal is to decode protein structures of the microbiome and understand diseases like diabetes type 1 and inflammatory bowel disease better. Based on similar structures, proteins can be categorized in so-called families. Knowing only one “family-member” in detail, can be sufficient to draw conclusions on form and function of all “relatives”. Thus, useful “families” can be easier separated from the useless ones for future research on the above-named diseases and only key-figures can be focused on.

The alleviate the categorization, not the genome of each and every single bacterium is examined, but so-called pangenomes. These are genomes of whole bacterial strains. Science has proceeded from footpath to motorway by the use of tremendously accelerated computing power.

Can I save the planet with my little processing capacity?

The principle of World Community Grid is similar to crowd funding. The capacity of one computer soon comes to an end with the gigantic scope of data that has to be handled. But when hundreds of thousands of computers join to one supercomputer, the processing power rises enormously and the project can be mastered.

And if you are thinking that your personal little data volume does not make any difference, just consider that nowadays every random smartphone outperforms the computers used for the first moon landing. And no, we hardly ever use our available data volume to the fullest. So yes, we all have more than enough spare data volume to donate to the cause. And the best thing: as opposed to crowd funding, where the money you give is gone, your processing power is not gone for good. You only share what you do not need for yourself at the very moment and you will have the entire amount at your disposal, any time you should need it to calculate your personal moon landing. So: why not join saving the planet every day a little bit more?

Lisa Keilhofer
Lisa Keilhofer

Lisa Keilhofer studied at the University of Regensburg. She works in internationalization and as a freelance editor.

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