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False-coloured SEM image of the whipworm. Image credit: Dave Goulding, Sanger Institute, Genome Research Limited

UK-wide schools genomics project launched

The pioneering project, run by IRIS and the Wellcome Genome Campus, engages A Level students in helping to solve the global whipworm parasite problem

Posted by Charley Rogers | September 29, 2017 | Secondary

The first large-scale school genome decoding project has been launched by the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) and the Wellcome Genome Campus. In this exciting collaboration, students from 60 schools in the UK will work with scientists to find and identify all the genes in the DNA of a global parasite, the human whipworm. The information from the huge Genome Decoders Project will help researchers understand the biology of the parasite, and aid the development of vaccines or treatments.

The human whipworm - Trichuris trichiura - is a parasitic worm that infects approximately 500 million people globally, mainly children in Asia, Africa and South America. It causes the neglected tropical disease Trichuriasis, which leads to diarrhoea, malnourishment and developmental problems. This disease has a chronic impact on the communities affected, but there is no current vaccine against whipworm, and existing treatments don’t work very well and are too expensive for many areas.

In a year-long research project, the school students will work alongside scientists to produce the first fully annotated (labelled) genome sequence for the human whipworm. A high-quality DNA sequence for the human whipworm has recently been produced, however this contains an estimated 15,000 genes which still need to be identified. Working with researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute, the school students will be trained how to find, identify and label genes, using their own computers.

Professor Becky Parker, the Director of the Institute for Research in Schools, a charity that supports students and teachers doing research in schools, said: “We are really excited to be launching this ground-breaking project, and have been delighted by how many schools have joined. It is a fabulous opportunity for school students to carry out real research, working directly with scientists on a globally important project. This is the first time ever that students have been able to help curate an entire genome, and they are hugely enthusiastic to get started.” 

Francesca Gale, Education Officer at the Wellcome Genome Campus who is co-ordinating the project, said: “Taking part in this project will be a fantastic experience for the students, and will expose them to cutting-edge research, interpreting real genomic data, finding genes, and even trying to work out what those genes do. Genomics is now part of the A Level syllabus so it will support their learning in the classroom. It will also show the students that they only need a computer and the right training to do this science, which can open their eyes to new careers.”

Using cutting-edge computer technology, the students will find the locations of the genes in the genome and label them, and will then investigate the functions of some of these genes. By comparing the genome sequence with other whipworm species such as the mouse whipworm (Trichuris muris), the students will identify new or different genes that could play an important role in the biology of the whipworm. This will be the first parasite worm genome to be fully manually annotated and will help scientists to find new ways of treating and preventing trichuriasis.

Dr Matt Berriman, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “There are millions of people infected with whipworms worldwide, and this affects whole societies due to a general level of ill health. The genome is the starting point for understanding any organism - it is the instruction manual. The students’ work producing a manually curated whipworm genome could reveal vulnerabilities in the parasite that might be exploitable as drug or vaccine targets. In the long term, this project could help towards reducing the number of children infected with whipworms in less developed parts of the world and help get them back to school.”

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