Ho: Ho: Ho: Merry Hypotheses! The gift of creativity in citizen science

The words "Ho Ho Ho" with the O's represented by petri dishes.During the Christmas Bird Count, bird observations are not gift-wrapped, yet participants are both giving and receiving the gift of science. The majority of citizen science projects engage people in the field work of scientific research, turning observations into data, or in classifying data online as a sort of virtual field work. But there are more steps to the scientific method than just collecting data, and today I’d like to spread the cheer of some projects that involve the public in other crucial steps of science.

For example, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science engages thousands in the Genetics of Taste: A Flavor for Health, a study in which the research questions were chosen by the public through town hall meetings and audience surveys. About 70% of people can taste a particular bitterness found in veggies like spinach. Also, some people have ten times the number of taste buds as others. Curious minds imagined the following testable possibilities, which we can denote with standard scientific abbreviation, “Ho”:

  • Ho: those who can taste bitterness are descended from ancestors who lived among bitter-tasting plants that were toxic, locations where natural selection favored a trait for detecting bitterness.
  • Ho: people with more taste buds eat less, and therefore have lower percentage body fat, because their tongues send more taste signals to their brain compared to people with fewer taste buds.

Ho, Ho, the hypotheses need testing and so many visitors have enrolled as study subjects (which turned their tongues temporarily blue) and some local volunteers have become certified by the National Institutes of Health to collect data, and trained by the Museum to extract and analyze DNA. The co-created knowledge from this project will help us understand the genetic ancestry of the gene Tas2r38 (pronounced “taster38”) that controls our ability to taste bitter and the effect of taste on our health today.

What about full participation at global scales where scientists and the public cannot meet face-to-face? Can citizen science participants anywhere in the world give the use of their minds, creativity, and curiosity to engage in science beyond contributing observations? Yes, a recent example involves crowdsourcing hypotheses.

We know little about naturally occurring microbial communities. They are a major source of biodiversity and their decline in our sterile world has been suggested as related to the rising levels of allergies and other immune-related disorders (the hygiene hypothesis). Belly Button Biodiversity was set up to discover what microbes dwell in our bellybuttons. Our bodies are the habitat for microbe communities, and these communities thrive in our navels, which are less exposed and get washed less often than our hands and faces. Rob Dunn’s lab started it like a typical citizen science project, where volunteers provided observations, in this case in the form of samples from their belly buttons, from which the bacteria were cultured and identified.

As reported in a recent study, from only the initial 60 volunteers, a veritable jungle of 2,368 different types of bacteria were found (called phylotypes; groupings which likely correspond to even more species) –  way more than expected. Most types were rare, found on only one person; eight bacteria types were common, occurring in about 70% of participants. Each person had about 50 types in their navel. The common types included the Bacillus, which kills fungi that cause stinky feet, and the Staphylococci which kill bad germs on our skin (just don’t let it in your skin).

Now that Dunn and his colleagues have data on the types, they can’t explain the variation. They had initial hypotheses:

  • Ho: the diversity of bellybutton microbes vary with the region where people currently live.
  • Ho: the diversity of bellybutton microbes vary with the region where people grew up.
  • Ho: the diversity of bellybutton microbes vary between innies or outies.

Ho, Ho, Ho, (Merry Christmas) – the researchers rejected all of these hypotheses using the preliminary data. They also ruled out other hypotheses:

  • Ho: bellybutton microbes vary between households with and without cats and dogs.
  • Ho: bellybutton microbes vary based on gender, ethnicity, and age.
  • Ho: bellybutton microbes vary with the climate of the region.

Ho, Ho, Ho, preliminary data do not support these either. Researchers were stumped and not afraid to admit it. With no more Ho merriment, the researchers decided to crowdsource brain power.  For about a month, the public have been contributing their own hypotheses and some of them are intriguing:

  • Ho: microbe diversity is related to vaginal versus Caesarean birth
  • Ho: microbe biomes are unique to each person, like fingerprints
  • Ho: microbe biomes are related to bathing habits and exposure to chlorine
  • Ho: microbe communities are shared among social networks
  • Ho: microbe communities are related to individual body temperatures and moistures
  • Ho: microbe communities change over time, like fields changing into forests

The merriment doesn’t end because the list of Ho, Ho, Hos goes on and on!

Crowdsourcing for hypotheses is a major leap forward for large-scale citizen science for two important reasons. First, it exposes the creative side of science. Creativity has been frequently crowdsourced outside of science, such as corporate contests for new logos or slogans. Its lack of use in science perpetuates a misconception that science is not a creative endeavor. When citizen science involves the public in generating hypotheses, people experience the part of the scientific method fueled by imagination.

Second, we need to get good at this and practice makes perfect. Our society has many problems to solve – and solutions will require aggregating the imagination, smarts, and observations of crowds in the systematic way called citizen science. Solutions will require integrating massive collaboration into our common culture. We already do it for Santa: we synchronize our efforts to perpetuate the myth that Santa delivers gifts to millions of homes in one evening. New frontiers in citizen science, tapping our common curiosities and concerns, bring us closer to making participation a mainstay of a shared human culture, like Santa-fying genuine research. With the world’s population smarter on average than ever before, harnessing our minds towards collective efforts may be humanity’s biggest cause for hope.

It’s natural to become introspective in preparation for making New Year’s resolutions. So, now is your chance to count your taste buds, contemplate your navel, and give the gift of science.

Image: Petri dishes of belly button microbes by Rob Dunn, Design: Caren Cooper

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