If Morgan Langille had his way, scientists could access the entire sequence of human DNA at the click of a mouse.
Langille, a scientist at the UC Davis Genome Center, recently launched a new website called BioTorrents, which allows peer-to-peer sharing of scientific data.
The website works the same way music and video peer-to-peer sharing system works, only better regulated and with an emphasis on biology, said Langille, who works under evolutionary biologist and professor Jonathan Eisen. Eisen helped Langille write his report and published it in the journal he edits, the Public Library of Science, Biology.
“It’s really quite obvious,” Langille said. “I’m surprised no one has done it before. It may be because scientists are stuck in their ways and use traditional sources to distribute data and information.”
BioTorrents allow for large quantities of data to be shared at rapid speeds. Often synonymous with illegal file sharing, torrent technology allows users to share files as large as 10 to 20 gigabytes. Langille explained that it’s not uncommon for a biologist to be working with DNA sequencing that takes up 20 gigabytes of space.
“Torrents are useful for anything requiring large fields of data.” Langille said.
BioTorrents is a good representation of a new trend in the field of science: transparency. Scientists share data in a more open environment now.
“Scientists are recently becoming more likely to share their data.” Langille said. “Scientists in the past held onto things way more secretly.”
BioTorrents can only work if there are a large number of users seeding from their computers. The whole system is based on peer-to-peer sharing; therefore, for BioTorrents to get off the ground, users must be open to sharing their data with the rest of the Internet. The more peers, the faster and more efficient the site will run.
Luckily for Langille, many public (non-scientists) users have offered to store gigabytes of information for the greater sake of the scientific world. This is not something Langille had expected, but he said he is thankful for that there are individuals who support the site, even if they aren’t using it for scientific purposes.
Although the site is dependent on its users, Langille hasn’t focused his time on advertising. Instead, Langille is concentrating on getting scientists on board. He believes that once the site becomes a medium for valuable information, other scientists will request to join.
“We’re also still working on the site,” Langille said. “Once we make it easier, I think it will become more successful.”
Using BioTorrents for academic purposes isn’t exactly unheard of. Torrents are most common for movies and music, but users can also find textbooks and scholarly journals as well.
“I download a lot of torrents,” said Aaron Weiss, a sophomore technocultural studies major. “Only recently did it occur to me to try to torrent my textbooks. It makes perfect sense, a textbook is a huge file. Why wouldn’t I be able to find my books online?”
However, Weiss said that downloading his books is not the most dependable method for scholastic reading.
“It’s not like you can find everything,” Weiss said. “But it’s definitely worth checking out before you shell out a ridiculous amount of money on books.”
While downloading textbooks may not be something publishers want to hear, Langille insists that BioTorrents is in no direct competition with scientific journals or publishers.
“We are more focused on data and findings that can help fellow scientists.” Langille said. “In the future, I could see scientists sharing their data as it comes in, before publication. We are aiming to make the whole process of scientific distribution faster and more open.”
Langille worked with Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biology professor to set up some parts for the site, but Eisen insists it was all Langille’s idea.
“He deserves all the credit,” said Eisen.
ANDY VERDEROSA can be reached at email@example.com.