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Could crowd sourcing provide the next genetics breakthrough?

dna.jpgPosted on behalf of Zoë Corbyn.

A wealth of extra free genetic data could be at scientists’ fingertips if a new website allowing the public to make their test results available gets enough traction.

OpenSNP provides a way for people who have had tests carried out by direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies – so far 23andMe, deCODEme and Family Tree DNA are supported – to upload their raw results online along with personal characteristics they wish to share from their eye colour to artistic ability to coffee consumption. Everyone can see the resulting data and download it, including scientists.

The non-profit hobby project, developed by three master’s degree students and a web developer, has just won first place – worth $10,001 – in the inaugural API Binary Battle, a competition funded by the paper sharing site Mendeley and the open access publishers Public Library of Science (PLoS) to build applications to make science more open while tapping into either or both platforms.

Bastian Greshake, studying for his master’s degree in ecology and evolution at Goethe University, Frankfurt, first had the idea for openSNP after he got himself genotyped this May. It provides a central repository for people who are willing to publicly share the powerful combination of both their genetic and phenotypic information, potentially enabling scientists to discover new genetic associations in the future, he explains.

While the companies already supply consenting customers’ genetic data for scientific research, and there are websites where people can upload their own, this is the first which includes phenotypic information too.

Thus far about 50 users have added their data to the website, which launched at the end of September. Greshake anticipates that at around 1000 data sets it will begin being useful for scientific study (though the information is entered on trust and data are unchecked).

Some scientists have already been in contact. “They thought it was a great idea and wanted to know how they can request our users provide extra phenotypic information,” he says.

Other than a rosy glow, the incentive for those willing to share their data are updates on the latest genetics research published in PLoS journals along with recommendations from Mendeley, of which summaries are also provided: great if you are interested in learning more about the genetic variations you are carrying.

Second place in the competition went to PaperCritic, a service which allows scientists to openly comment on papers once they have been peer reviewed. Third place was taken by rOpenSci, which helps users to search and retrieve data from papers and databases.

Image courtesy of RambergMediaImages via Flickr under Creative Commons.


  1. Report this comment

    Roger Alexander said: does the same thing AND has been around for quite some time so it has a database quite large; THE critical requirement for this type of site.

  2. Report this comment

    Bastian said:

    A short comment on ySearch:

    While it is true that one needs a large enough database to do anything meaningful with the data both services are quite distinct:

    The main difference is that ySearch does not offer any support for uploading phenotypic information. Their focus is alone on the genealogical side of genetics (i.e. finding relatives).

    openSNP on the other hand is mainly aiming for users and scientists who are interested in learning more about genetic risk factors and maybe also want to perform genome wide association studies themselves. In order to perform those association studies you need genetic information as well as phenotypic information.

    So openSNP offers a way to publish your genotyping results along with as many phenotypic information as you like. This is a thing that ySearch does not offer.

    The other thing: As the focus of ySearch is on genealogy they don’t use the whole data but only the parts that are known to be relevant for genealogical studies. openSNP parses the full genotyping results, so you can screen through everything.

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    Dan Gutierrez said:

    OpenSNP was fortunate to win the API Binary Battle to obtain funding for their worthwhile project. But many worthwhile crowd-sourced research projects do not have a source for funding. For projects like this, which are in the majority, crowdfunding may be the answer. Enter the new crowdfunding platform expressly for scientific research: The site is seeking compelling research projects in the physical and life sciences, engineering and math/science education.

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