Crowdsourcing – ‘the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers’ –was the name of the game a few years ago. And in a biological context it was famously exploited to investigate protein folding using the program/‘game’ FoldIt. And so skillful have participants in this exercise become that their combined talents are now being exploited to design completely new proteins, such as new catalysts for photosynthesis.
Helping plant science we also now have crowdfunding, ‘the collection of finance from backers — the “crowd” — to fund an initiative and which usually occurs on Internet platforms’. And an intriguing example of this phenomenon is the call for funds to help sequence the genome of Azolla filiculoides by a team based at Professor Kathleen Pryer’s Seed-Free Vascular Plants laboratory at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina, USA), in collaboration with Professor Paul Wolf at Utah State University (USA). The funding opportunity is hosted by the appropriately named ‘Experiment’, a ‘platform for enabling new scientific discoveries’. Although you might expect universities to be funding the research, that has become increasingly difficult to secure and might not always be forthcoming, especially in cases of ‘risky’ projects. That’s where organisations such as Experiment, which exists to help secure funding that will allow new ideas to get off the ground, especially ‘the innovative and high-risk ideas with the biggest impact’, come into their own. Acting primarily as a shop window, Experiment advertise projects to would-be sponsors – who in true egalitarian style can be anybody, true citizen science in action – and only charge a fee for their services when the project becomes fully funded. And at 8% of the funding total secured that fee is much lower than normal university overhead charges, which take large shares of research funding provided by more traditional sources such as government-funded research organisations!
Anyway, back to the Azolla project. The modest sum of US$15 000 is sought to generate a draft sequence of the genomes of Azolla and its symbiotic N-fixing bacteria, with a view to understanding the two-way, inter-kingdom language that codes for the molecular machinery underlying this symbiotic partnership, and possibly tailor it to suit our needs. Why? Azolla is a ‘superorganism’, consisting of not just the fern but also a diverse array of symbiotic bacteria. It is this unique microbiota that converts nitrogen into organic forms and makes Azolla a perfect bio-fertilizer. In a world where we are ever more concerned about pollution by increasing use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields to meet an increasing demand for food by a growing human population, you might think that this is the sort of project that should be funded by tax dollars extracted from the populace by governments, rather than expecting their already-taxed citizenry to dig into their own pockets effectively twice over. But it always pays to look at the fine print: ‘Genomic sequencing of this unique Azolla–Nostoc system would cost well under $1 million’. Whilst $15k is well under $1 million, I suspect the final figure required will be much closer to $1 million than $15k, which I guess is what’s hinted at behind the text ‘as a start, the funding of $15 000 will get us reasonably good quality genomes [P. Cuttings’ emphasis] for the Azolla superorganism that can jumpstart various exciting research programs’ in the project’s ‘budget overview’. Maybe more traditional sources of funding will pick up the remaining US$985 000 if the project’s potential is demonstrated on the shoestring budget? If only because, although approximately US$1 million is considerably more than the $15 000 sought, that’s ‘far less than the $8 billion each year that US farmers pay for nitrogen fertilizer’ – much of which finds its way into rivers and streams, damaging delicate water systems. This small step toward potentially helping crops to use less synthetic nitrogen could benefit farmers’ bottom lines, the environment and the prices we pay for food’. Hear, hear! And as I write this on 9th June 2014 there are 32 days left to pledge and add to the then-current total of US$1625. Good luck securing the rest of the funding!
[What we haven’t got space to go into here – but which also emphasises another unique characteristic of Azolla – is the role it played in global cooling in the Arctic Azolla Event of 50 million years ago. A famously fascinating fern, indeed! – Ed.]
[Ed. – by way of follow-up to the above story, we are pleased to learn that BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute, but now based in Shenzhen) has now supported the Azolla genome project by offering to fulfill all of the necessary sequencing needs free of charge. For an insightful article dealing with the crowdsourcing initiative, and lessons learned therefrom, see Li and Pryer: Crowdfunding the Azolla fern genome project: a grassroots approach. GigaScience 2014 3:16; doi:10.1186/2047-217X-3-16.]