In the third of our Who’s who in the Zoo series, meet Etch A Cell‘s Dr Martin Jones
Project: Etch A Cell
Researcher: Martin Jones, Deputy Head of Microscopy Prototyping
Location: Electron Microscopy Science Technology Platform, The Francis Crick Institute, London, UK
What are your main research interests?
Imaging and image analysis.
Who else is in your project team? What are their roles?
Lucy Collinson (head of EM STP) leads the EM team, Chris Peddie (Principal Laboratory Research Scientist) acquired the data, Anne Weston (Senior Laboratory Research Scientist) performed the expert analysis.
Tell us more about the data used in your project
The images are from our “serial block face scanning electron microscope” and are of small groups of HeLa cells (a type of cancer cell). The electron microscope allows us to see objects down to a few billionths of a metre in size. Each cell is divided up into around 200-300 individual sections (like a loaf of sliced bread) so we can see the insides of the cell. To start with we hope to analyse around 50 cells, but as a core facility we have an endless supply of different types of data we’d like to analyse!
How do Zooniverse volunteers contribute to your research?
The Zooniverse volunteers help us with our “segmentation” task – tracing a line over the nuclear envelope, which is a very important membrane inside the cell that separates the nucleus from the rest of the cell.
What have been the biggest challenges in setting up your project?
One of the key advantages of the citizen science approach is that we can have several different volunteers analyse each image, allowing us to combine the results to get a statistical understanding of the data. Combining the volunteers’ work in the most effective way possible turns out to be pretty tricky though! Especially since our data is stored as lots of individual lines, meaning a simple average doesn’t really work.
What discoveries, and other outputs, has your project led to so far?
The first thing we wanted to make sure was that the data we get is good enough, which thankfully it looks like it is! Even that was perhaps a bit unexpected to some people! We’ve found it has been popular as an education and outreach tool too, with reports of teachers using it in their classes to teach about cells. We’ve also shown it off at an event at the Natural History Museum in London and a CRUK event in Manchester and spoken about it at several conferences around the world. We’re writing up the first journal article about it right now in fact!
Once you’ve finished collecting data, what research questions do you hope to be able to answer?
While electron microscopy produces amazingly detailed images, there are very few studies where data has been fully quantified at large scale, since it’s such a labour-intensive process at the moment. By measuring the shapes of each object (nucleus, mitochondria etc.) in different types of cell we can perform robust quantitative comparisons that are not currently possible. This sort of knowledge will help us to understand many different diseases, like cancer, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as help us find effective treatments for those diseases.
What’s in store for your project in the future?
There’s a lot more to come from Etch a cell! We have plenty more data that we’d like to analyse in the same way – tracing outlines – but for some other objects inside a cell we think a different approach might be easier and more effective. We’re working on a few options, and hopefully future iterations will be easier for people to work with on mobile devices. In parallel, we’re also building an artificial intelligence system to use the results from Etch a cell to enable us to train computers to be as good at the task as humans.
What are your favourite other citizen research projects and why?
Bash The Bug was released at the same time as Etch a cell and is a really great project. EyeWire is another electron microscopy project that has been groundbreaking in the field of “connectomics” – trying to understand how the cells in brains are connected together. Cancer Research UK has produced several different projects with a great deal of success, it was our initial interaction with their team that brought citizen science to our attention in the first place.
What guidance would you give to other researchers considering creating a citizen research project?
Have a play around with the project builder, setting up a basic project is really easy!
And finally, when not at work, where are we most likely to find you?
I try to get outdoors as much as possible, whether that’s walking, running or cycling.