Dave Goulding, Sanger Institute, Genome Research Limited

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

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.

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

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Notes to Editor

For further details of the Genome Decoders Project see: http://www.researchinschools.org/projects/genomics.html

Selected websites

  • About the Institute for Research in Schools

    IRIS is a charitable trust supporting young people and teachers to develop authentic research in schools. It gives students access to the world of real, cutting edge science by bringing university and industrial experts and equipment into school laboratories. When sixth form students take part in research, greater numbers go on to study science at university and take up careers in science and engineering. By working with teachers to develop their research interests, IRIS also helps to boost their own career development.

  • Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

  • EMBL-EBI

    The European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) is part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL, www.embl.de) and is located on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Hinxton near Cambridge (UK). The EBI grew out of EMBL’s pioneering work in providing public biological databases to the research community. It hosts some of the world’s most important collections of biological data, including DNA sequences (ENA), protein sequences (UniProt), animal genomes (Ensembl), 3D structures (the Protein Databank in Europe), data from gene expression experiments (ArrayExpress), protein-protein interactions (IntAct) and pathway information (Reactome). The EBI hosts several research groups and its scientists continually develop new tools for the biocomputing community. EMBL-EBI is coordinating ELIXIR (www.elixir-europe.org), a pan-European research infrastructure for biological information.

  • About Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement

    Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement enables sharing and discussion of the pioneering science that takes place on the Campus through a range of training, activities, resources, and projects. The team works with collaborators in research, education and cultural organisations to share ideas with diverse audiences and foster a community of engaged researchers. Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement is part of Connecting Science.

  • Wellcome Genome Campus Connecting Science

    Wellcome Genome Campus Connecting Science’s mission is to enable everyone to explore genomic science and its impact on research, health and society. Genomics is revolutionising health research, but is also a deeply personal science, relevant to us all. We connect researchers, health professionals and the wider public, creating opportunities and spaces to explore genomic science and its impact on people. Connecting Science inspires new thinking, sparks conversation and supports learning by drawing on the ground-breaking research taking place on the Wellcome Genome Campus.

  • Wellcome Genome Campus

    The Wellcome Genome Campus is home to some of the world’s foremost Institutes and organisations in genomics and computational biology, committed to delivering life-changing science with the reach, scale and imagination to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges.