Saturday, 3 March 2012

Amateur Biology

I want to talk about something that runs as a thread through our history, and is currently growing very strong, yet is often overlooked. It is the part that amateurs play in science – here I will focus on biology. I would argue that this phenomenon is of great value, the ripples of which spread beyond the immediate work done by amateurs, carrying an understanding of and engagement with science far beyond what professional scientists alone could achieve. This is important - science after all is an endeavour in which we are all stakeholders, we contribute to it with our taxes and ultimately its advances impact upon our lives.

Amateur science has come in many forms, from the fashion for amateur science amongst the Victorians, to the boom in so-called citizen science of the last few decades, fuelled and enabled by the internet. Many amateur science projects make use of the power that large numbers of enthusiastic volunteers can bring, to collectively achieve tasks that would be too time consuming for professionals alone. At the same time there are many amateur scientists with a great deal of experience in a particular area, sharing much of the specialist knowledge of professional scientists. Indeed some important biological advances were made by amateurs.

One great example is Gregor Mendel, considered the father of genetics. He was a monk, albeit one in a somewhat unusual monastery. It was headed by Cyrill Napp, who himself was involved in science, and at the time the monks’ duties included teaching mathematics at the Philosophical Institute of Brüun (now Brno) in Moravia.

Left: Gregor Mendel, Right: example crossing experiment

Mendel had attended the Philosophical Institute in Olomouc but could not afford to continue to University. It was this that led him to his life as a monk, however he did not take well too it, reportedly being too shy to deal with the parishioners. Abbot Napp had him sent to teach Greek and mathematics to children, which Mendel took too well, however he repeatedly failed the tests to become an accredited teacher, and eventually returned to the monastery. Here he was allowed to carry out experiments that turned at last to those using the garden pea, which would make Mendel famous. Abbot Napp even had a new greenhouse built for Mendel’s work.

Mendel was happy pottering away in the garden during this nine year breeding experiment, but also took a meticulous approach in his work, which aimed to understand the laws of inheritance that governed traits of pea plants, such as seed colour and plant height. Firstly he spent two years breeding pure strains of plant with different traits. He then crossed the plants by transferring pollen between them. The view in that age was that such crosses would produce intermediates forms for each trait, for example crossing a plant with yellow seeds with a plant with green would produce a plant with light green seeds, however in every case Mendel chose, he found that one form of the trait was dominant over the other, ie. all the offspring from the mentioned cross had green seeds. But crossing these offspring to each other produced a surprising result. Some of their offspring showed the dominant form, but in some the recessive form had re-emerged  (eg. yellow seeds). Mendel determined that this occurred in a ratio of 3:1.

What Mendel had uncovered became a basic law of inheritance for living things which reproduce sexually. This reasoned that for each trait there were two factors – in the pure plant with green seeds they where both the dominant green factors (G,G), and in the pure yellow seeded plant they were both the recessive yellow factors (y,y). In the first cross all the offspring got one of each factor from each parent (G,y), and all displayed the dominant green seeds. However crossing these to each other could give four combinations (G,G) green seeds, (G,y) green seeds, (y,G) green seeds, or (y,y) yellow seeds, hence the 3:1 ratio (note there are both (G,y) and (y,G) ie. the G could come from the mother or the father). It was not until about 100 years later in the 1940’s that it was determined that these factors, now called genes, were coded in our DNA.

So what effect did the revolutionary findings of this quiet amateur scientist have? Almost none, that is until after Mendel’s death, when his ideas were discovered by several scientists in 1900, and at last his ideas were seen for what they were. The Cambridge zoologist William Bateson became Mendel’s greatest champion. But at the time when Mendel published his paper in 1866, scientists had either failed to grasp the significance of Mendel’s paper, or ignored the findings as they conflicted with their own ideas (this was the case with Professor Karl von Nägeli with whom Mendel corresponded, who held to the idea that crossing traits would produce intermediate traits). This was perhaps partly because of Mendel’s amateur status. In some cases his paper titled “Elements in Plant Hybridization” may have simply failed to capture peoples imagination (the copy that Mendel sent to Charles Darwin was never even opened). Mendel’s ideas may have been ignored in his lifetime, but they are certainly not today, with the principles of Mendelian Genetics being second nature to modern biologists.

An area in which amateurs have played an important part is the discovery of fossils. This tradition goes back to the beginning of the 1800’s, with Mary Anning. Growing up in a poor family in Lyme Regis, by the Jurassic cliffs, Mary began working to collect and prepare fossils for tourists to buy. In 1811 Mary’s brother Joseph discovered a fossil skull protruding from the cliff, and 12 year old Mary carefully dug out what proved to be a dolphin or shark like creature of reptile origins – the first Ichthyosaur ever discovered. In the next few decades Mary went on to make several more great discoveries including the first Plesiosaur, the long-necked sea reptile, and the first Dimorphodon which belongs to the group of winged Pterosaurs (in fact this was the first Pterosaur find in England). Mary was a keen eyed fossil hunter, and braved the cliffs during the winter when many new fossils were exposed. She was out hunting when a cliff slide killed her dog and nearly killed her. But she was also much more than this, she was bright and taught herself geology and anatomy.

Her findings of these long extinct animals would have major influence in the emerging ideas about the development of life on earth. They contributed significantly to the concept of a previous age when reptiles dominated. The new idea that life had not always been how it is today had a major influence on the emerging ideas about life’s evolution. The value of Anning’s discoveries would also contribute to the emergence of palaeontology as a scientific field. As a woman, from a poor family of religious dissenters, she never attained the position that her talent demanded, yet she did gain respect from many during her lifetime. She was acknowledged as an expert, and corresponded with and met professional scientists. She was an honorary member of the Dorset County museum, and paid an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London.

The discovery of fossils continues to be an area where amateurs make their mark. Perhaps the most extraordinary case is that of Jerry MacDonald, who discovered an incredible number of Permian (the time predating the dinosaurs) footprints in New Mexico. After hearing that such footprints had been found in the region, he is said to have sought places where the sandstone (formed on land) met limestone (formed at sea) reasoning that shorelines would be the ideal place for tracks to be made. Eventually he found such a site where the abundance of tracks included everything from those of a ten-foot sail-backed pelycosaur (the reptiles which predated the dinosaurs) to ancient millipedes.

At the time - in the late 1980’s - he was undertaking a PhD in sociology, but gave this up when he realised the significance of what he had found. When Jerry discovered the tracks he said that they “communicated life to me”. They showed the animals’ gaits, and even suggested details like their speed and the interactions between them. Over the years Jerry stripped back the mudstone layer by layer, carefully recording the rocks so entire trackways could be pieced together. He is said to have carried around 18,000 kilograms of slabs in a single year.

When he presented them to the scientific community, many dismissed the tracks as fakes, but Jerry’s finds have come to be marvelled at. Ichnologist (fossil-footprint expert) James Farlow described the finds as “one of the best footprint faunas of any kind, any age, anywhere”. Jerry credits his amateur naivety as being important, as “The Robledo mountains are a nightmare geologically… You'd look at that and say there is no way that continuous tracks could survive. So nobody did it”.

Another extraordinary amateur biologist is the Breton taxi driver Pierre Morvan. He has always held a passion for the living world, studying horticulture, but ended up taking hotel work. In this time something fascinated Pierre which was that a type of ground beetle found in the Pyrenees mountains was also present in the Caucasus mountains. He began travelling to other mountain regions to search for beetle species, until his boss had had enough. He then became a taxi driver, gaining the flexibility to travel all over the world, particularly the Himalayas. In explanation of what he does, Pierre uses the Breton phrase “andavanon caravanon” - “the unknown consumes me”. He is thought to have now discovered 600-700 new species. He studies his finds in great detail, and this has allowed him to identify a feature – two tiny dots on either side of the head – which he has found to be a hallmark sign of the sub-genus Batenus. This is a great tool for classifying the notoriously problematic ground beetles. In 1987 Pierre’s work was recognised with the Rolex award for enterpise, which has funded two more Himalayas trips, and allows him to dedicate his time to documenting his vast collection back in Brittany. According to entomologist Thierry Deuve, Pierre’s work “will underpin the research of entomologists all over the world, and allow specialists to better understand the evolution of the Carabidae”.

One man may be capable of discovering new species, but for the ongoing monitoring of wildlife huge numbers of observers are needed. Thankfully many amateurs are involved is in the monitoring of wildlife, and this is the first way that I encountered amateur science. I had a primary school teacher - Mr Duncan - who was an experienced birdwatcher, and who would take a group of us each week to record the birds in the countryside around the school.

He was also involved in bird ringing, a project which relies on 2,700 trained amateurs to catch birds, record details of their age (judged by the number of their flight feathers), weight etc. and then fit a ring with a unique identifying number. All of this information is stored in a database, and is updated when birds are re-caught or found dead. Along with data from the nest record scheme, this work is allowing us to understand how bird populations are changing over time, and how for example the changing climate is impacting upon our native birds. I was lucky enough that he also ran an after-school club where a small group of us helped with bird ringing in the school’s surroundings. On a couple of occasions I also went along with him to Languard fort where volunteers have carried out daily bird ringing throughout most of the year, since the 1980’s. Situated on a long spit, just south the UK’s largest port, this jumble of earthworks and military buildings built from 1543 onwards, is now overgrown and home to many birds. Crucially it is also a stopping point for many migrant birds on their way to and from the continent, making it an ideal point to monitor bird populations. This illustrates the great value that amateur scientists can bring to the wider community, and the particular benefit of having school teachers who are also involved in science.

These days the internet is also revolutionising amateur science. One project capitalising on this is eyewire. The basic idea is that people, as intelligent beings, still far outstrip the best supercomputers at many tasks. In this project the precise wiring diagram of all the nerves in the eye is being mapped, based upon extremely detailed serial electron miscroscopy images. The surface of a biological sample is imaged, before a 50 nanometre wafer is shaved off and the sample imaged again. Finally the images can be assembled to create a 3D reconstruction of the sample. Eyewire then uses computer software to trace neurons and their connections within the retina, but the software is always directed by people, who can quickly identify features within the image, and correct errors that the software makes. It is hoped that the detailed understanding of the eyes wiring will help us understand how vision works, and this approach may also be utilised in the future for studying even more complex regions of nerves within the brain. The beauty of this project is in bringing together amateurs from all over the world, in order to undertake such a huge task.

The increasing involvement of amateurs in biology, means that people from many walks of life are gaining a deep understanding of this field of science and an increasing say in its future directions. This should help finally pull down the gates of the ivory tower (or percieved ivory tower) and aid in the democratisation of science.

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