The next time you take a road trip, think before you clean the bug splatter off your car. Those insect remains may actually be more interesting than your vacation photos.
“It turns out that your car is a sampling device for understanding the biodiversity of all the places you’ve been,” says James Taylor, a computational biologist at Emory.
Genome Research recently published a paper by Taylor and collaborators that applied advanced DNA sequencing techniques that are traditionally used on microbial samples to look at insect biodiversity. “We were curious whether these techniques would work for more complex organisms,” Taylor says.
To collect genetic material for the study they used the bumper and windshield of a moving vehicle. Two samples were collected: on a drive from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, and on a trip from Maine to New Brunswick, Canada.
“We found that there is a huge amount of insect diversity, but what was really surprising was to see the enormous amount of novel sequence,” Taylor says. “It’s indicative of how poorly we have sampled the whole tree of life in genome research so far. There’s an enormous amount of species out there.”
Taylor is a co-developer of Galaxy, an open-source software system for analyzing genetic data. The Galaxy developers recently refined the system, creating the Galaxy metagenomic pipeline that allows a research team to integrate all of the data, analyses and workflows of a study, and then publish this material as a live online supplement.
The bug splatter paper served as the first test of the metagenomic pipeline.
“I believe that this study is one of the most transparent and reproducible bioinformatics papers ever,” Taylor says. “Anyone can go online, follow links and see every step of our analysis and exactly what parameters were used. And they can take our data and do their own analysis of other questions.”
No computational experience is required to use the free Galaxy system, Taylor says. “All of science is becoming computationally intensive, so tools like this are needed to improve transparency.”
DNA sequencing technology is getting cheaper, opening more doors for research by small investigators, and Taylor is focused on serving this niche.
“Nowadays, you can have a crazy idea like studying bug splatter and without a lot of money or work, you can go out and do it just to see what’s there,” he says.
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