The Next Big Drug Discovery Could Come From a Scoop of Soil in Your Backyard

Scoop it up for science! Photo Credit: Pat Dumas
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dr Robert H. Cichewicz. Director of the University of Oklahoma, Institute for Natural Products Applications and Research Technologies (INPART). Dr Cichewicz leads the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program which is focused on translating natural products into therapeutic leads to combat cancer, infectious diseases, and other unmet medical needs. Visit the project page on SciStarter to start participating and join thousands of other citizen scientists! You can also find other projects in our database through the project finder!

Do you remember what is was like to be five years old? I don’t, but I get a pretty good idea from watching my children.

There are two things that strike me when watching them. First, we all start off as a scientist at heart. There are innumerable questions to be asked and answered. Each day is filled with question marks, big and small, about how and why the world works that way that it does. Second, at some level, we all love dirt. More than just the opportunistic digging and poking of fingers into the dirtiest possible places, children embrace dirt and regularly don it like an essential fashion accessory. At some level, I believe that we have all retained some aspect of those characteristics in our grownup selves. And although adult society (and our mothers) might chide us for being too nosey with endless questions and too messy based on the dirt under our fingernails, there are simple ways that we can still embrace our inner child.

One of these ways is to join our Citizen Science Soil Collection Program.

Robert Cichewicz, University of Oklahoma.

It is estimated that there are 1.5-5 million fungi on Earth, but only a handful have ever been studied. The fungi make secondary metabolites known as natural products. Many of these compounds have found important applications in modern medicine as antibiotics, cholesterol-lowing medications, and as immunosuppressants.

Researchers in our lab at the University of Oklahoma culture microorganisms, in particular fungi, from soil samples. We examine fungi from samples submitted by citizen scientists and test the compounds that they make for the ability to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells and stop infectious organisms from spreading. We also work with a network of collaborators who investigate the fungal natural products for additional therapeutic uses.

We are hoping that everyone who can, will help us by embracing their innate curiosity (and love of dirt) and send us a soil sample today. You can make a difference. Participation in the program is free and only requires a few moments of your time. As citizen scientists, you can be a part of the process working toward the development of new and effective treatments for many of today’s ailments. Although the process to creating a drug is a long and difficult journey, it has to start somewhere and that place is your backyard.

Request a free soil collection kit and reconnect with your inner youth. Go poke around under that rotting tree, look in the overgrowth behind the shed, and check out Fido’s favorite spot in the yard. In other words, ask yourself where you think those amazing fungi are lurking and if you cannot make up your mind, request a second kit!  In this program, not only are questions encouraged, but they are required. On top of this, you get to play in the dirt! Or as we say in our program “Get your hands dirty. Make a difference.”

So go ahead, scoop it up for citizen science!