Research Report: Citizen scientists aid studies from afar

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach. Her regular column features local science news.

By Lynne Friedmann


“Citizen archaeologists” helped UCSD researchers find Bronze Age burial sites and other Mongolian antiquities as part of a National Geographic expedition that invited web users to participate as citizen scientists, in real time from the comfort of their homes.

The expedition used noninvasive tools to explore and map parts of Mongolia including the “forbidden precinct” — the homeland of Genghis Khan, which has gone unexplored for 800 years. The goal is to uncover archaeological sites while respecting local customs that the land not be physically disturbed.

Citizen scientists analyzed real-time data, maps, high-resolution satellite imagery, and other field information and mark anomalies that might represent archaeological ruins. The field team, in turn, used ground-penetrating radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, remote sensors, and on-site digital archaeology to “ground truth” the tagged sites.

Online participation by the public is known as human computation, or “crowdsourcing.”  Human computation is an ongoing research focus at UCSD’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Additional information at and the public can still participate in this expedition for several more months at

Linking obesity, heart disease

A team at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) has created a simple model, using fruit flies, to link high-fat diet, obesity and heart dysfunction. The fruit fly model is ideal for studying the heart because most of the basic molecular mechanisms controlling its development are similar to those in vertebrates.

Using the new model, researchers discovered that a protein called TOR influences fat accumulation in the heart and demonstrated that manipulating TOR can protect the heart.

In this study, flies fed a high-fat diet of coconut oil became obese and exhibited many of the same secondary symptoms as obese humans, including heart dysfunction. To determine how TOR regulates the effects of fat on the heart, researchers generated flies that lowered this protein’s activity (which normally dampens an enzyme that breaks down fats). By inhibiting TOR or boosting the fat-digesting enzyme, fat accumulation in the heart was reduced and cardiac health of otherwise obese flies improved.

The study appears in the journal Cell Metabolism. News release at

Fat hormone linked to heart protection

In healthy humans, fat tissue produces high levels of a hormone called adiponectin known to protect the heart. However, how adiponectin protects the heart has long been a mystery. A Sanford-Burnham research team reports that adiponectin is anchored to heart cells by the protein T-cadherin acting as a receptor.

To determine T-cadherin’s role in heart protection researcher studied what happens when the protein is missing. In engineered mice that lacked T-cadherin, adiponectin was no longer able to bind to heart tissue. The researchers then exposed T-cadherin-deficient animals to cardiac stress by restricting blood flow. Without the ability to bind adiponectin, mice with mutant T-cadherin suffered from increased cardiac damage and experienced the same symptoms as mice lacking adiponectin under those conditions.

The study appears in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. News release at

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.

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Posted by Kathy Day on Nov 9, 2010. Filed under Columns, Health & Science, Research Report. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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