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Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

Fungi grown from soil samples will be searched for compounds that could treat cancer and infectious disease.

Robert Cichewicz

Reddit prompts citizen scientists to go dig up dirt

Thousands of citizen scientists around the country are getting their hands dirty collecting soil samples after the Internet bestowed a recent burst of attention on a soil sampling project. The crowdsourced project, which aims to find new drugs by cultivating fungi from soil samples, drew only moderate interest since it began in 2010. But it caught a lucky break on social media and has now exploded, surpassing researchers' wildest dreams in just a few days.

Since Friday morning, when a reddit user posted a link to the website of the Citizen Science Soil Collection Program, run by the Natural Products Discovery Group at the University of Oklahoma, the group has received more than 4000 requests for soil collection kits—a huge boost from the 500 samples they collected over the past year. Researchers watched the project go viral, spreading on social media and other websites. One enthusiastic reddit user wrote, "I'd love to see what's hiding in the dirt under these redwoods!"

"It's just incredible; this is exactly what we were hoping for. I wish I could say we were the architects of it, but it just happened, and it's awesome," says chemist Robert Cichewicz, lead scientist for the project.

The project aims to discover new drugs by sampling a wide variety of fungi found in soil throughout the United States. Of the millions of types of fungi on our planet, only a small fraction have been studied scientifically. The scientists hope that by exploring this uncharted biodiversity they will find new compounds produced by the fungi that are effective for treating cancer and infectious disease. Would-be citizen scientists can request a free soil collection kit online and send in their neighborhood dirt to be studied.

The group is now working to maintain its momentum, campaigning online and on social media to attract 10,000 requests for sample kits by the end of the week—a number that would allow the group to amass a "mind-boggling" library of chemicals, Cichewicz says.

"The engagement of people and the general public into the scientific process can just redefine an entire lab's research in a matter of days," Cichewicz says. "I'm just giddy."