NASA has proven adept at crowdsourcing — it leverages the exuberance and talents of students to build nanosatellites or to participate in lunar plant growth. Now, NASA has other crowdsourcing plans — ones that involve biology rather than cosmology. Josiah Zayner, a NASA synthetic biology fellow, wants to leverage the public to provide greater efficiency when it comes to developing antibiotics.
To that end, Zayner and a neurobiologist colleague have launched The International Laboratory for the Identification of New Drugs, otherwise known as the ILIAD project. Think SETI, except instead of users trying to crunch data about potential alien life at home, they’ll be part of a “Massively Multi-Scientist Open Experiment” in which they tap into their inner mad scientist by examining and testing plant and insect specimens to help identify their antibiotics. Many antibiotics are derived from naturally occurring organisms such as fungi, plants, and herbs, so it’s a perfect way to get citizens involved.
Zayner’s idea responds and attempts to address two problems — one being the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant organisms, and the other being the increasingly slow pace of new antibiotic development, particularly for those resistant bacteria. The Infectious Diseases Society of America even said that the development of new antibiotics is “on life support.” While Zayner realizes the Iliad project won’t fix these problems, they could help alleviate them.
All a participant needs is one of Iliad’s three-step experiment kits and the desire to finish the project. The kits vary, depending on what someone wants to test — plants, bacteria, etc. After purchasing a kit, at-home scientists collect samples and then follow the instructions to test them for antibiotic properties. Step 3 involves documenting the results on the Iliad Project website.
The scientists will take it from there. They’ll verify the results generated by the Iliad Project experiments and bring any notable outcomes to the greater scientific community for further development. They’ll keep Iliad Project users notified about the results of their contribution.
The Iliad project currently has an Indiegogo campaign to raise funding. The pledges are in the same amount as the various kits, starting at $42 and going up to $500 for classroom kits (or $5,000 if you want a personal hands-on demonstration). That would be an awesome class science project. Backers will receive their kits by February 2014, and they’ll be able to start uploading results onto the project website by April 2014.
This is a great idea — there’s no reason why kids or adults or whoever shouldn’t get involved in science, and Zayner’s right to identify the development of antibiotics as a specific need. Maybe it’s not quite as exciting as the search for extra-terrestrial life, but it’s a lot more tangible and involves actual samples, which is always fun. And it seems safer than engineering a superflu. I bet you anything some kid will use this kit to find what becomes the next big breakthrough in antibiotics.