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This is how microbiome research can reach the general public

    Are ordinary people interested in scientific and technological research? The social perception reports produced by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) show that interest in R&D has remained stable over recent years. Around 15% of Spaniards say they are interested in science.

    Research centres help to swell this percentage by running numerous popularisation activities and getting the public directly involved in their efforts to achieve responsible research and innovation. The initiatives engaging the public include citizen science projects. A good example is “Stick Out Your Tongue”, a participatory science initiative in which technology cores play an important role.

    The project is coordinated by the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in partnership with the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) and La Caixa Foundation and supported by the Severo Ochoa Centres of Excellence programme. Its purpose is to study the diversity of the oral microbiome in Spain. Just as with gut microbiota, the researchers are seeking to identify the diversity of existing mouth bacteria and fungi and their variability between individuals. Once the genomes of the sample microorganisms have been sequenced, people have been asked to correlate this variability with the phenotypic and environmental characteristics of the participants. This means society is also involved in the data analysis part of the project while additionally there are more participants in Stick Out Your Tongue than the number of sample donors, estimated at 1,600 people. 



    The challenge is unquestionably important. Firstly, the researchers want to understand whether the oral microbiome plays a role in the development of a range of diseases at a time when it is already suspected that saliva may contain biomarkers to detect diseases such as cancer. Secondly, few studies have been run to identify the fungi present in the mouth, and these characterisations have had a small sample size at fewer than twenty people. Finally, the researchers have sought to work with the public in Stick Out Your Tongue and not to remain closeted away in the classic “ivory tower” where experiments are sometimes conducted. The project has included seven of the ideas put forward when collecting participant details in addition to the phenotypic and environmental characteristics of the sample donors.

    These ambitious goals could not be accomplished without the support of the CRG’s technology cores which have taken part in Stick Out Your Tongue: the Biomolecular Screening & Protein Technologies Unit, the Genomics Service and the Bioinformatics Unit. The centre has coordinated the extraction and collection of samples in addition to the sequencing and bioinformatic analysis to be conducted later on. Just as with the study of the gut microbiome, reading DNA and interpreting the big data generated make it possible to quantify the diversity, composition and quantity of microorganisms in our mouths. However, in addition to determining the number and variety of bacteria and fungi it is also essential to correlate this information with the role they play in our health. For example, today we know that the appearance of teeth brings about significant changes in the oral microbiome, which is dynamic and likely to be affected by environmental and social factors.

“The main aim of the study is to obtain more complete knowledge about the composition of the oral microbiome at the bacterial and fungal levels among young students in Spain,” said     Toni Gabaldón, scientific leader of the Stick Out Your Tongue project. To this end the scientists have collected more than 1,600 individual samples in 41 schools across the country. Based on this the amount of information generated will come to over 250 million nucleotides. But how does this project seek to engage the public? In its first stage, the initiative collected ideas to include them in questions concerning data collection. After that, the second stage consisted of a talk and sample collection from students in the 41 participating high schools. The third stage, which will finish on 15th January 2016, is made up of a contest related to five challenges about statistics, bioinformatics, visualisation and data analysis and interpretation as the researchers seek to get participants directly involved in the analysis of Stick Out Your Tongue project data.


Source: Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG)

In addition, an outreach section has been set up on the project’s website. It features news about the initiative and the study of the oral microbiome together with entertaining explanations of techniques such as DNA extraction, the polymerase chain reaction and processing data using bioinformatics tools. Samples were collected from schools in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Murcia, Andalusia, Madrid, Navarra, the Basque Country, Aragon, Castilla y León and Galicia. In these regions CRG scientists have set out the importance of studying the oral microbiome. Events such as the Open Days at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park have also raised awareness and publicised research into the invisible microorganisms found in the body. As Carl Sagan put it, “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” Maybe someday citizen science projects as important as this one will help change that perception.