UK students working with scientists to help prevent childhood parasite infection

Genome Decoders, a UK-wide schools project to help solve a global parasite problem by decoding the whipworm genome, has launched

UK students working with scientists to help prevent childhood parasite infection


The first large-scale schools genome decoding project will be launched today (28th Sept 2017) 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.

Whipworm: this project with UK schoolchildren could help to expose the parasite's genetic vulnerabilities and point to potential drug targets. Image credit: Dave Goulding, Sanger Institute, Genome Research Limited

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.

“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.”

Professor Becky Parker, the Director of the Institute for Research in Schools, a charity that supports students and teachers doing research in schools

“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.”

Francesca Gale, Education Officer at the Wellcome Genome Campus who is co-ordinating the project

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.

“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.”

Dr Matt Berriman, group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Notes to Editors

For further details of the Genome Decoders Project see:

Selected Websites
How do you identify the genes in a genome?FactsHow do you identify the genes in a genome?
After the sections of DNA sequence have been assembled into a complete genome sequence we need to identify where the genes and key features are, but how do we do this?

How is genomics being used to tackle neglected tropical diseases?StoriesHow is genomics being used to tackle neglected tropical diseases?
Neglected tropical diseases affect the poorest of the world’s populations but relatively little is known about their biology. Genomics is now providing insight into these diseases and enabling scientists to develop new strategies to prevent and treat these debilitating diseases.

What are helminths?FactsWhat are helminths?
Helminths are worm-like parasites that survive by feeding on a living host to gain nourishment and protection, sometimes resulting in illness of the host. There are a variety of different helminths from the very large to the microscopic.

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