A behind-the-scenes look at the open-source efforts to map the tuberculosis (TB) genome reveals the key role that a developing country's university students played in the project.
Some 400 student volunteers — selected from about 850 applicants to help with the Open Source Drug Discovery project — worked in their free time for four months, often more than six hours a day, to help map TB genes in the hope that this would eventually lead to new drug targets.
Students could choose to work on any of five project themes, each supervised by an experienced researcher.
Some of the students "had never read a peer-reviewed paper published in journals like Science and Nature". Others, still doing their undergraduate degrees, had no prior knowledge of the bioinformatics used for such work.
To add to these challenges most of the project took place online, and the functions of more than a third of the TB bacterium's 4,000 genes were unknown and needed to be mapped.
Prabhakar Munusamy, an undergraduate student based in Tamil Nadu, India, said: "I was not very confident that I could do it ... but I soon got interested". Another student, Harsha Rohira from Delhi University, said she "was doing the entire work from 7.30 pm till 4 am, every day," after returning from her college classes.
Their hard work was not in vain: the genome was successfully mapped (see Open source TB megaproject yields first fruits) and their project supervisors were impressed with the quality of students' work.
"From my experience, if these students are given the same encouragement, they can perform like any other student from any developed country," said Samik Ghosh, a scientist at the Systems Biology Institute, Tokyo.
"It is essential for India to provide the environment and motivation for students to excel."