Accelerating biological research with an open-source 'virtual organism'
In April 2014, OpenWorm raised $120,000 from 799 backers, to support:
‘a scrappy, open-source project that began with a tweet and that's coordinated on Google Hangouts by scientists spread from San Diego to Russia’.
From such informal beginnings, in the past three years this pioneering digital open science project has more than earned such a level of support.
This international team of scientists (pre-Kickstarter, mostly on a voluntary basis) has built a basic digital model of one of the most important animals studied in all of biology – a microscopic worm called C.Elegans. Its simplicity (its brain has exactly 302 neurons) makes it ideal to study brain functions, which are currently poorly understood. They have put this model into an iOS app, and a freely available explorer tool which works right in your browser.
As the OpenWorm model improves it will be used in silico (i.e. computer simulated) experiments, the range and scale of which will dwarf what is currently possible using real C.Elegans worms. Improving our understanding of basic brain functions in this way could make a fundamental contribution to the development of cures for brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
This ambitious long-term goal has driven the team to adopt a radically open model of development and dissemination. They are a widely distributed team of scientists and developers, producing an entirely open source product. They are also actively inviting others to join in – artists, writers, philanthropists, ‘curious citizens’ – with the intention of broadening the base of support and comprehension of both this project and fundamental scientific research in general.
Through putting both the process and the product of this project into the hands of as many people as possible, the OpenWorm team is taking the opportunity for learning and breakthroughs out of a handful of labs and into the browsers of anyone who wishes to participate in a potentially landmark project in the fields of artificial intelligence and neuroscience.
Image courtesy of OpenWorm
Last updated: 30th of July, 2014