Research often involves teams of scientists collaborating across continents. Now, using the power of the Internet, non-specialists are participating, too. Citizen Science falls into many categories. A pioneering project was SETI@Home, which has harnessed the idle computing time of millions of participants in the search for extraterrestrial life. Citizen scientists also act as volunteer classifiers of heavenly objects, such as in Galaxy Zoo. They make observations of the natural world, as in The Great Sunflower Project. And they even solve puzzles to design proteins, such as FoldIt. We'll add projects regularly—and please tell us about others you like as well.
Not sure what to do with the cockroaches skittering across your kitchen counter? The Rockefeller University’s Program for the Human Environment will take one or two of them off your hands in the name of science. Researchers are using DNA barcoding to answer a number of questions about the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), also known as the palmetto bug or waterbug.
Genetic diversity is a window into evolution and patterns of migration. American cockroaches originated in Africa and hitchhiked around the world on commercial goods. The National Cockroach Project asks:
Do American cockroaches differ genetically between cities?
Do U.S. genetic types match those in other parts of the world?
Are there genetic types that represent undiscovered look-alike species?
Life on Earth started about three-and-a-half billion years ago. It's the tiny changes accumulating over a long, long time that got us here. Citizen scientists can see some of those tiny steps by joining the Evolution MegaLab.
The main focus of this research is the banded snails (Cepaea nemoralis and Cepaea hortensis), which can be found in almost any part of the U.K. where snails are generally present. Citizen scientists will seek out these snails and keep records of the locations where they are found using maps and satellite pictures on the Evolution MegaLab Web site.
Putting names to species is fundamental to biodiversity science, conservation and education, yet it is a skill largely absent from formal biological education at all levels. Knowing the correct name of an organism is the key to learning about it, to sharing your observations with others and to contributing to the corpus of scientific knowledge. Un-named species are effectively invisible and impossible to conserve.
The social networking Web site iSpot is designed to remedy this. Our 20,000 citizen scientists share their observations and get help identifying what they've seen, building up reputation as they learn and making good identifications with the help of experts from more than 80 natural history societies.
We also have a sister site in South Africa that the South African National Biodiversity Institute use to engage the public in the process of identifying and mapping the unique flora and fauna of that region.
iSpot.org.uk is supported by the Big Lottery Fund for England, as part of the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project, and by the Garfield Weston Foundation.
PigeonWatch participants observe pigeons and send their data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where scientists compile the information and use it to examine questions of scientific interest. Citizen scientists participate by counting pigeons and recording courtship behaviors observed in their neighborhood pigeon flocks.
PigeonWatch is an international research project that involves people of all ages and locations in a real scientific endeavor. It combines real "hands-on" science with neighborhood-based education. Although PigeonWatching can be as easy as observing pigeons along a city street, the data are crucial for scientific research, and PigeonWatchers learn about birds and how science and scientists work.
North Carolina State University's School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Collection kits are available to anyone interested in participating—teachers, students, parents, kids, junior-scientists, senior citizens and enthusiasts of all stripes are involved in collecting ants in schoolyards and backyards using a standardized protocol so that NCSU researchers can make detailed maps of the wildlife that lives just outside our doorsteps. The maps created with these data are telling the researchers quite a lot about native and introduced ants in cities, not just in North Carolina, but across the United States and, as this project grows, about the ants of the world.
Starting this fall, citizen scientists will be able to view their sampling location on an interactive map with a species list generated from your collected samples. In the meantime, NCSU researchers are sorting and identifying the ants in all of these samples.
Researchers at Duke University's Noor lab of Evolutionary Genetics are developing a new "model system" for addressing interesting evolutionary genetic questions: the scuttle fly, Megaselia scalaris. This species offers many interesting facets: for example, it bears homomorphic sex chromosomes, and sex is determined by a male-determining region that actually transposes among chromosomes at a low, but detectable, rate.
The researchers are now in the process of obtaining complete, high-coverage genome sequences from males and females to isolate the region(s) distinguishing the sexes and begin deeper investigation into the genetic and evolutionary questions. Megaselia scalaris is both cosmopolitan and a "pest" species, being associated with myiasis and other infections of humans, as well as having potential forensic entomological applications. The researchers anticipate incidental benefits to society from explorations of this interesting biological system.
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