The students had been navigating their way through the 80 million letters of the whipworm genome for some time before they finally located their allocated gene.
They then compared the computer prediction to various other lines of evidence and tracked down the three letters that indicated the start of the gene – ATG – and the three letters that indicated its end – TAG. Having agreed on a plausible structure, they signed off on the gene – their gene – and decided it was time for a coffee, their first whipworm gene curated.
This is what science is about: discovering new things relating to how the natural world works. Yet secondary school students rarely experience the sense of excitement and ownership that genuine original research can provide.
Indeed, experimental investigation – the very essence of how science works – is generally a charade, a choreographed practical where everybody knows what is supposed to happen. Students do not, in my experience, find this engaging. The best response you can hope for is, “Oh, look, it’s doing what it’s supposed to.”
The thrill of discovery
Science teachers can and should be doing much more to help their students experience the thrill of scientific discovery.
This is how we came to work on the whipworms (Trichuris trichiura). Whipworms infect the gut of just about every mammal on the planet.
There are whipworms that specialise in mice, in cats, in dogs and in humans. Passed from person to person through faecal/oral contamination, they are endemic wherever there is poor sanitation. Globally, up to 800 million people are infected.
Untreated – and in rural Africa and Asia, that probably applies to most people – the chronic infection leads to gastro-intestinal problems ranging from bloody diarrhoea to faecal incontinence. In children, it causes malnutrition, delayed growth and poor cognitive development.
Apart from causing individual suffering, this neglected tropical disease (considered neglected because it is difficult to find commercial partners to research treatments that affect only developing countries) significantly limits economic development – it’s hard to generate wealth when your workers are sick for much of the time.
However, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute has now fully sequenced the genome of the human whipworm – using modern high-throughput sequencing techniques. This is only one part of understanding the Whipworm genome, though. What takes time is the human input, individually inspecting each of the 15,000 possible genes to “annotate” them. These can then be compared with genes in other organisms to try to identify the ones unique to the parasite.
Such a gene might be a molecular chink in the whipworm’s biological armour, enabling a designer drug to be developed that can attack it safely and effectively. So it’s a project that matters, one that could make a difference, and it’s real science – original research that is looking at something no one has ever looked at before.
Which is where our students come in. After some basic training in how to use the Apollo genome editing software, they have launched themselves into “curating” a section of the whipworm genome. On their own or in small groups, they look at a section of the whipworm’s DNA and compare the computer-predicted genes with evidence from lots of other sources.
The excitement is tangible
Why are they doing it? It won’t contribute to their A-level or GCSE results. And it can be difficult, frustrating, confusing and, in many ways, it doesn’t feel like real biology – they’re not using micro-pipettes or carrying out gel electrophoresis.
Yet the excitement generated by this project is tangible. There’s the very real thrill of knowing that you are the first person to ever actually look at something, coupled with the ownership you have over the final result. When they sign off on a gene they have curated, it’s basically their gene. There’s also the sense of having contributed to something worthwhile, as well as the challenge of learning the concepts necessary to understand the project and of tackling the powerful software that enables them to do the work.
Plus, they’re working at the cutting edge of a key area in modern biology – genomics and bioinformatics. Yes, perhaps some are thinking of how it will look on their CV or personal statement but, mostly, they’re just enjoying the thrill.
It’s a brilliant concept. IRIS, the Institute for Research in Schools (researchinschools.org), working with the public engagement team at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire, saw the potential for crowd-sourcing such research across schools in the UK, and together they designed the project, called Genome Decoders.
It’s been a huge success. IRIS, in its own words, is trying to transform the classroom experience of science, exploiting technology so that students can effectively collaborate with scientists around the globe, process information at lightning speed and develop innovative experimental ideas. The organisation runs similar projects in physics and chemistry.
The particular genius of the whipworm project is that students can do the work wherever they have a computer and internet access – I didn’t have to book an entire computer suite at school or find timetable time or try to drag them away from other lunchtime activities.
Let students explore
It would be nice to think that the whipworm model could be more widely incorporated into school science teaching.
It is, after all, a world away from how science is generally taught in schools – where a compendium of facts is delivered in a more or less engaging way with, if the students are lucky, some practical work thrown in for light relief.
Yet what needs to change first, in my view, is the whole approach to teaching science. It’s fantastic that ambitious real-world science projects are available for those who are sufficiently motivated and interested to participate, but the curriculum needs to enable all students to experience what science is like.
Rather than using practical work to confirm something that the teacher has already explained to the class, we need to turn it around and enable students to explore and discover things for themselves. We should try to promote the reaction “That’s funny…” in pupils – words that have inspired every scientist from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking.
This is how you can show students what real science is like. It’s not difficult, it just requires a shift in how lessons are planned and perceived.
For us at Oxford High School, the whipworm project is a logical extension of what we’re already trying to achieve. I think more schools should do the same.
Dr Paul Weeks is head of the biology department at Oxford High School