Teaming up for Tetrahymena

November 19, 2010

Bradley graduate students Ravinder Punia and Mike Bowen haven’t had a biology class since high school, but they devote hours a day to scientific research behind cancer, aging, and pharmaceutical studies.

Punia and Bowen are computer science students who have partnered with Dr. Nick Stover in the biology department to make Bradley University the epicenter of information about Tetrahymena, an organism studied widely in various types of biomedical research.

Ciliate.org, a website created by Stover and redesigned by Punia and Bowen, is a one-stop-shop for everything anyone would ever want to know about Tetrahymena. The official genome database neatly presents decades of study by leading international biologists, some of whom boast Nobel prizes for work on Tetrahymena. For computer programmers Punia and Bowen, the project offers practical training in the rapidly growing field of bioinformatics.

“This is the kind of work the Internet is based upon,” said Bowen. ‘The first networks were for scientific collaboration and research. We’ve combined the power of that vision with technological advances to create a huge benefit for the research community.”

With some 25,000 genes, Tetrahymena is quite complex, but the website makes studying the ciliate deceivingly simple by devoting a page to each gene. Using Punia’s efficient interface, it’s easy to access information about any of the myriad genes, and much like a microorganism in a Petri dish, the site is growing rapidly.

Stover and company went live this month with a wiki website that allows researchers across the globe to not only access information about Tetrahymena, but also the opportunity to submit their own studies on the organism. Just days into the advance, Stover is already considering ways to use Punia and Bowen’s design to serve more scientists and student researchers around the world.

“Now that the site is set up, I’m very excited about talking with people who have other research interests and helping them set up sites for whatever organism they’re interested in,” said Stover. “With Ravinder and Mike’s design, we hope to begin hosting many sites like this from Bradley.”

With the guidance of Dr. Steven Dolins, chair of the Department of Computer Science, Punia has spent nearly two years bringing the website from rudimentary to revolutionary. As he approaches graduation, he is passing the buck to Bowen, who has earnest plans to give the site a sleek new look and interactive components. Though the experience has given Punia an invaluable advantage among his computer science peers, he admits the technology transfer is inciting some separation anxiety.

“I would like to continue working on this project in some form,” said Punia. “Having the opportunity to work on a project that makes an impact all around the world really means something.”

So far, researchers at universities as far away as Austria and China are actively contributing to the site that proudly displays Bradley’s name. The user list includes such prestigious institutions as Stanford, Berkeley, and the J. Craig Venter Institute, which sequenced the human genome.