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The Nematocyst is Awesome

November 7, 2013

Nematocyst-dischargedWithin an evolution lab in the shadow of the Ohio State Stadium, an NSF-sponsored group of academics and computer scientists assemble to grow the latest branches of the Tree of Life. Branches range from diatoms to dragonflies. The energy level is high. An opening session on “Learning to Detect Basal Tubules of Nematocysts” draws a stadium-worthy cheer: “The nematocyst is awesome! The most complicated thing any cell makes!” A nematocyst is a jellyfish cell that discharges a harpoon-like barb extending a basal tubule through which the cell injects venom. The visualization program, we hear, detects 60% of basal tubules in the images, and 62% of the detected tubules are correct. Exclamations of joy. “That’s even better than—an undergraduate!”

The program combines crowdsourcing (of undergrads, museum goers, etc.) with visualization tools and matrix algorithms to grow a database of everything out there, all life. One major project compiles the teeth and skulls of bats. Another group images plant leaves–the plants of North America, and the plants of China. And of course the microbes—those will come through our own MicrobeWiki. We are working with Lisa Moore at U. Southern Maine to have our classes compile the Bacteroidetes, a group of intestinal and soil bacteria that break down amazingly complex plant molecules in our gut.

Down the road, one wonders. The number of bacterial species is literally infinite. Many bacteria have open pangenomes, that is, genomes capable of incorporating an infinite variety of extra genes. Actually, on a sufficiently long timescale even our one human species has an open pangenome. And once our lentivectors get started engineering us, look out. Meanwhile, like NASA rovers rising into space, the Tree of Life project carries on.

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