Georgetown Joins Partnership on Website Studying Microbes
November 26, 2012 – Georgetown’s biology department has partnered with the university’s Center for New Designs in Leadership and Scholarship (CNDLS), Simmons College and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) to create Genome Solver, a website that helps faculty and students investigate the Human Microbiome Project.
The Common Fund Human Microbiome Project (HMP), located within the National Institutes of Health, is designed to identify and study the microbes that populate the human body.
The project aims to understand all of the organisms associated with the human system, according to Anne Rosenwald, an assistant professor of biology at Georgetown.
“These microbes, which include colonies of bacteria, are found everywhere – inside your nose or digestive tract or on your elbow – can have both harmful and beneficial effects,” Rosenwald explains. “Scientists are looking to better understand these organisms and their functions within the body, especially how the microbial populations change when a person becomes ill.”
The project’s website explains that microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells 10 to 1 in healthy adults.
“This community [of microbial cells], however, remains largely unstudied, leaving their influence upon human development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition almost entirely unknown,” the website states.
Needing More Trained Scientists
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Genome Solver is an interactive website that includes analysis tools and provides a place for scientists to talk about their research projects.
“Data about these microbes were largely unavailable until recent technological improvements in computers and DNA sequencing,” Rosenwald notes, “But now the organizations like JCVI can quickly and easily produce additional data for the Human Microbiome Project. The only problem is that there are only few scientists currently trained to analyze it.”
To combat the problem, Rosenwald leads summer workshops for professors at other universities who want to use Genome Solver and teach genome analysis in their own classes.
As the need for these skills has grown, she and CNDLS are exploring how to train more faculty and students.
“We have really good computers now to analyze DNA sequences,” Rosenwald explains, “and we have a faster way to sequence DNA. But there are still advantages to having humans look at these analyses.”
She says it allows students and faculty from Georgetown or any institution to create groups encompassing shared scientific interests.
“[Students] spend so much time online,” Rosenwald says. “They don’t see the website as a barrier but as an opportunity.”
While many Georgetown students have the opportunity to work in laboratories, Genome Solver allows for additional research opportunities in the undergraduate classroom.
Rosenwald and her team also hope to bring research-based learning to more Georgetown science students and students at other universities.
“[Genome Solver] gives students at other schools that don’t have a lot of resources a way to do real research,” she says. “All you need is a computer with an Internet connection.”
Through Genome Solver, Rosenwald and CNDLS are exploring how to combine online learning and the traditional classroom experience, but they also hope to create an academic community with shared interests in cutting-edge genomic research.
“It’s not just for students in our classes,” Rosenwald said. “It’s for faculty at other colleges and universities and their students. We’re trying to generate a community.”