60 volunteers put on their socks for a special walk in the woods, and their 4-km hikes became a form of low-tech environmental sampling. The data is now allowing UK researchers to map and understand the prevalence of one of the most significant infectious bacteria.

The curiosity-inspiringly named ENIGMA project brings together researchers from all over the UK, including the University of East Anglia and the University of Liverpool, and is trying to understand the puzzling high number of Campylobacter infections. What’s in their detective kit? A lot of boot socks and help from citizen scientists, as the authors describe in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology

Campylobacter infection is one of the most common in developed countries, and also one of the most costly. In the UK alone, it costs the economy around £600M per year and causes 200 deaths. The cause is often contaminated food, but that alone doesn’t account for the high number of infections. Without knowing the transmission pathways, public health authorities can’t control or reduce the risk effectively.

To evaluate the hypothesis that exposure to landscape could be a direct source, researchers wanted to quantify the population of Campylobacter across regions of the UK. This is where the army of citizen scientists come in. During 16 months, groups volunteers in two regions of England, North West and East Anglia, went for walks in rural fields with a sock on the outside of one of their shoes.

citizen science environmental microbiology campylobacter

Volunteer citizen scientists featured on ENIGMA’s walker newsletter, wearing the boot socks.

The socks act as a simple sampler, gathering dirt and, with it, the bacteria present in the soil. When the walk is finished, the volunteer mail the sock in a biohazard container to ENIGMA’s researchers. At the academic labs, the quantity and possible source of Campylobacter species were assessed with the usual methods, such as Petri dish cultures and PCR. From the total of 720 socks analyzed, researchers could for now conclude that Campylobacter was more common in the North West, which has more livestock. In East Anglia, the source of most of Campylobacter seems to be wild birds. The method could be applied to further studies.

Citizen science is a growing pastime, along with other projects related to science and engineering, like biohacking. “Commoners” can and do collect important data, particularly in projects that require a lot of manpower – some of the most popular projects are in conservation of plant and animal species. The democratization of lab equipment, such as the Bento Lab, could extend the possibilities to microbiology and biotechnology.

For now, association with card-carrying academics, like in this study, seems to still be the most straightforward way to access lab results, and contribute to scientific, peer-reviewed insights. With growing environmental concerns and the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, citizen’s help could certainly be valuable.


Images from Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock and ENIGMA project


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