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In a leap towards integrating public involvement in scientific discovery, Dr Frances Colles, Departmental Lecturer in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases based in the Maiden Lab in the Department of Biology, leads the Genome Detectives project, an online citizen science initiative designed to decode the complexities of bacterial genomes. This successful project not only democratised scientific research but also showcased the potential of citizen contributions to advancing genomic science.

At a Glance

  • The Genome Detectives project leveraged the online Zooniverse platform to engage a global audience in genomic research, overcoming geographical barriers.
  • Animations and interactive tools were used to help make the science accessible and engaging for participants.
  • The project resulted in changes to research algorithms, demonstrating tangible value for scientific methods.


From Data Overload to Discovery: The Citizen Science Solution

Fran embraced the concept of online citizen science after receiving feedback from an unsuccessful application to the University’s Wellcome-funded ‘Enriching Engagement’ grants. “That was incredibly helpful to us because we were coming from this point of view that we'd done bits and pieces of engagement, but nothing as big as this.  At the same time, Dr Charlene Rodrigues, co-lead on the grant, had attended a Zooniverse meeting inspiring the concept and design of Genome Detectives, which was designed in collaboration with genomic expert and colleague Dr Holly Bratcher.  So, everything combined to create a successful project idea,” Fran recalled, underlining the importance of feedback and team effort for shaping the project’s direction.

 Genome detectives on Zooniverse website. Reads: "Decode bacterial DNA to help fight infectious diseases"

In addition to the desire to do more public engagement with research, the necessity to annotate a critical subset of data that defied automatic analysis was a driving force. “It's only 3% that aren't annotated automatically, but that's still a huge amount of data that we don’t have enough time to fully curate as scientists," she explained, adding, “people are good at spotting things outside of patterns and seeing new patterns.”

Having obtained funding from ‘Enriching Engagement’ with this newly shaped idea, Genome Detectives was born to extend their ‘community curation’ approach beyond professional scientists. Volunteers help decode bacterial genomes to fight infectious disease by annotating genes that allow researchers to understand which genes might be associated with, e.g., antibiotic resistance. The tasks involve people reading gene sequences and looking for ‘start’ and ‘stop’ sequences, and what frame they are in.

Online Engagement Triumphs

The choice to operate online expanded the project’s reach. Fran expressed her enthusiasm for the digital format: “the thing I particularly like about it being online is that I think it's much further reaching hopefully... I feel like you can reach a much wider audience."

This approach also allowed the deployment of creative solutions such as animations, which Fran found “really useful and engaging for people, and saved tonnes of reading”.

The project was not without challenge. This included finding the intricate balance between simplification for accessibility and maintaining scientific integrity. A process greatly helped by seeking help from experts, from inside the University and beyond. The project commissioned an animation studio to help explain the science and as a how to guide for volunteers. Fran praised the collaborative process, “they were professionals in their field and they were absolutely brilliant. You just see your ideas coming to life in a way that I wouldn't be able to do.”

Participants at the Genome Detectives launch event trying the project online.Participants at the Genome Detectives launch event trying the project online. 


There were also hurdles to overcome like adapting to online and hybrid formats for launch events during the unpredictable time of lockdowns.

A Community of Curators: The Power of Public Participation

The enthusiastic participation of over 4,500 volunteers contributing  300,000 classifications, vividly illustrates the project’s success. Fran shared a memorable quote from a dedicated volunteer who got so absorbed in the project they forgot their household chores: “they’d forgotten to go and paint their house… that’s my favourite”.

A Consensus for Quality: Ensuring Data Integrity with Citizen Science

The quality of data collected through citizen science is often a critical concern, “actually, we get the same question from the citizen scientists as well” Fran commented. Careful consideration was given to data quality, especially as the database fed by the annotations has a learning algorithm that could be undermined.

Fran explained that the consensus-based approach used by most citizen science projects ensures the reliability of data. The process involves setting a threshold for how many different people review a sequence. “That's a bit of trial and error. We started off a bit higher. We started at 50 reviews of a sequence, but now we find that 20 is fine,” Fran reflected.

The researchers are always in the loop to do the final check. Fran stated, “you can see one or two might be outside the norm, but generally there has been a consensus and it's worked really well.”

Synergy in Science: Citizens and Automation Working Hand in Hand

This engagement not only accelerated the annotation process but also helped the team think differently about how they did things. Highlighting the mutual benefit where citizen scientists are not only filling in the gaps where automation can’t do things, but also helping to create automation processes. Fran observed, “it's moved the research on, it's made us think more about what we're doing and what is needed. We're continuing to develop and improve the software annotation scripts that are automated,”.

They also found the project enhanced what they had to offer in their other public engagement efforts, for example at events like Science Festivals in Oxford, “it’s just a good conversation starter and a way of showing people what we do”.

Charting the Future: Expanding the Frontiers for Detectives

Reflecting on the project, Fran acknowledged the steep learning curve and the invaluable insights gained into public engagement and communication, for her and the wider team. “Having made that jump, which was very scary and a particularly steep learning curve, it’s really nice looking back to see how much we have done”, she remarked, adding, “my understanding of outreach has changed massively from the start and also it's really helped with things like teaching.”

Fran also explained how they’re trying to explore the broader impacts of the project for the volunteers involved, so are looking to develop their evaluation.

The project’s success, and especially the continuing enthusiasm of volunteers, has been a driving force to pave the way for expanding the project’s scope to include more challenging tasks, including creating a ‘training academy’ where Genome Detectives graduate to become Genome Inspectors. Fran concluded, “it needs to be a progressive journey and we wouldn't have dreamt of doing that from the start. I think we have increased our ambition.”

Further exploration

The Genome Detectives project demonstrates the power of collaborations between citizen scientists and University researchers, not only in advancing research but also in fostering a deep enthusiasm of science for volunteers. As Colles and her team navigate the future of Genome Detectives, their journey offers valuable insights for researchers seeking to develop public engagement in science.

If you’re inspired by the Genome Detectives story, explore the opportunities on offer from Zooniverse and beyond:

-          Find out more about the Zooniverse

-          Build a project on the Zooniverse platform

-          Bring your research to life using video through Oxford Sparks

-          Read about how in-person citizen science was harnessed in the Darwin Tree of Life project


This case study was drafted with the assistance of AI: the interview transcript was generated with AI. ChatGPT was used to generate text according to human directed key points. The final text was edited for content and clarity by Michaela Livingstone-Banks.