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'Crowd-sourcing' could speed ash dieback breakthroughs at Norwich Research Park

Bioinformatician Dan MacLean works on the Chalara Ash Dieback disease at the Norwich Research Park. Photograph Simon Parker

Bioinformatician Dan MacLean works on the Chalara Ash Dieback disease at the Norwich Research Park. Photograph Simon Parker

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Norfolk scientists leading the fight against a deadly tree disease hope a revolutionary online tool will speed their discoveries - by invoking a new spirit of worldwide co-operation.

The Norwich Research Park (NRP) is spearheading the UK’s efforts to understand the Chalara ash dieback infection, which has spread to almost 400 wild sites after its first discovery in Ashwellthorpe last autumn.

Part of a £1.5m research grant announced yesterday will be allocated to boosting the capacity of a “crowd-sourcing” website, which will allow the findings of all the project partners to be instantly shared and analysed.

The idea came to the fore during the European E.coli outbreak of 2011, when a genetic sequence of the bacteria was released into the public domain, allowing all scientists to join in the race to decode the organism’s DNA.

A similar effort is under way at the NRP to speed the understanding of how the Chalara fungus attacks ash trees.

Scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre have already published the first “RNA” sequence data on the Chalara fungus – essentially a genetic snapshot of the organism at the point where it causes the disease.

Dr Dan MacLean, a bioinformatician at the Sainsbury Laboratory, said scientists would normally withhold sequence data until they had a paper accepted for formal publication in a scientific journal.

“It is turning over the normal process,” he said. “It might take 12 weeks to get published, even if you ignore the four years it took to write the paper.

“But if there is a public emergency, that takes far too long – so we needed to turn it on its head.

“With this, you don’t have to wait for the full story, you can put findings up straight away and people will comment or criticise it. It democratises the whole thing.”

The system tracks and attributes contributions from other scientists and also allow live “peer review” of analysis.

Dr MacLean, whose background is in molecular plant biology, also provides the technical support for the huge computational tasks required to re-build the DNA and RNA fragments generated by the machinery at The Genome Analysis Centre into full sequences for analysis.

“These machines can count billions of sequences, but they are very small and they need putting back together,” he said.

“Once we have that information it is vitally important we don’t just leave it on a hard drive.”

The OpenAshDieback website is at http://oadb.tsl.ac.uk/

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