Just be curious: why citizen science is the future

You don’t need to be scientifically trained to take part in valuable research.

Currently, it’s the beginning of the rainy season in the heart of Brunei, and I have never been so sweaty. Last night I was poking at insects larger than anything I’ve ever imagined in my nightmares, and despite this, I’m having the time of my life.

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I’m on a taxonomy expedition at the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre in the Kingdom of Brunei Darussalam with a small group of entomologists, biotech researchers and laypeople like me. We are searching for new species in the rainforest under the guidance of a research organisation that’s tackling the problem of dwindling grant money as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.

Taxon Expeditions is one of a new crop of private entities that is tapping into the pockets of people who are science-curious, but not science-trained. We helped to fund this research, and we get to participate in it.

The electricity won’t be on again for another four hours, but we are beavering away at DNA extraction and sequencing using an unbelievably futuristic device called the Nanopore MinION.

It is portable, it is battery-powered, and it is sequencing the DNA from a tiny section of the rear leg of an Agathia gigantea moth in the time it takes to roast a mid-sized Christmas turkey.

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I can’t emphasise how remarkable this is. I spent a lot of time as a child dozing in my Snoopy sleeping bag under the table in my mother’s lab as she worked on her PhD in developmental genetics.

Sequencing DNA in the 1980s wasn’t something that a person just did in a few hours, and it certainly wasn’t done using a device that fitted in the palm of one’s hand. And the result wasn’t then immediately cross-referenced with an offline version of an online public database of more than 5.3 million ‘DNA barcodes’ to see if the organism being sequenced is a newly discovered species.

And the craziest thing about all of this is that the sequencer costs less than £1,000 from a company based in Oxford. I would recommend pairing up with an actual geneticist, a biotech expert and a real entomologist to make sense of the data, but the implications for the future of access to hands-on science are astonishing.

© Jason Raish
© Jason Raish

Mark my words: we are less than a generation away from an army of layperson bio-prospectors working the field using a little bit of scientific training and a lot of YouTube knowledge.

But if a trip to the rainforest with an organisation like Taxon is out of the question, then you can still do research as close as your back garden. The same group that took me to the rainforest went to the Vondelpark in the centre of Amsterdam and identified a new wasp that had never been recorded by science.

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And yes, the sequencer – while less expensive than a high-end smartphone – does require a little more training than a touchscreen. But this kind of science is rapidly trickling down to the rest of us, so getting any science kit or apps in the hands of your kids or grandkids this holiday season is an investment. Because there’s nothing like discovery to fuel the future.