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  • In this online citizen science (OCS) project, participants analyse electron microscope images taken of a range of biological samples, helping scientists better understand cancer, infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV, diabetes, the immune system, the brain and more.

    Rights: Etch a Cell, The Francis Crick Institute

    Etch a Cell

    This project asks citizen scientists to observe an image of a cell produced by an electron microscope then draw around the nucleus. This action will help to train computers to do the job automatically and help scientists who study diseases.


    Note: this project is is now finished but you can see the results here:

    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: OCS projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Interpret representations

    Science focus: cell structure, disease

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Eukaryotic cells have a cell membrane, cytoplasm and nucleus.
    • Cells have different structures that correspond with their specific functions.
    • The structure of a cell and its internal organisation enables cellular processes to proceed efficiently.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • relate the structure of a cell and its internal organisation to the efficiency of cellular processes
    • identify the parts of a typical eukaryotic cell
    • discuss the function of various parts of a cell
    • explain how studies of the size of the nuclear envelope can assist scientists to understand more about certain diseases.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Rights: Zooniverse

    Zooniverse logo

    Zooniverse is a platform for citizen science projects that bring together researchers and volunteers to assist with data analysis and image identification.

    About Etch a Cell

    This project, developed on the Zooniverse platform by researchers at London’s Francis Crick Institute, shows human cells up close. Participants are invited to examine electron microscope images taken through multiple sections of cell samples and accurately circle the nuclear envelope. The task is simple but requires patience and persistence. This provides an opportunity to discuss these traits and why they are important in scientists’ work.

    Rights: Etch a Cell, The Francis Crick Institute

    Segmenting a cell in the lab

    A scientist in the lab segmenting a cell nucleus on an electron micrograph. ‘Segmenting’ means to draw around the cell features of interest and is one method to turn 2D images into a 3D model.

    Drawing around the edge of the nuclear envelope is the first step for scientists to then layer up these 2D shapes to create a 3D image of the nuclear envelope. Scientists can then ‘see’ more clearly inside the cell. By studying the biological features of both diseased and healthy cells, comparisons can be made that may lead to greater understanding about certain diseases and potentially their causes or cures.

    This project does not share the data that citizens help to generate, but there is some very useful background information on the research page, including an example of 2D images layered to make an animated revolving 3D nuclear envelope. The animated comparison of expert versus citizen 3D nuclear envelopes in the results page is also of interest – can you see a difference?

    There is a ‘Talk’ feature where you can post questions to the scientists. This accessibility to the experts has been shown to be a powerful connection and motivator for students.

    Nature of science

    Using this OCS project allows valuable conversations with students about their developing understanding of scientific tools, huge datasets and the many steps involved in learning more about common disease.

    Related content

    The Hub has a wealth of resources to support the Etch a Cell OCS project.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students.

    Useful links

    This comprehensive booklet Inside the Cell was developed by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (US) and contains beautiful images of cells, descriptions and details about how cells are studied. It’s very detailed but well worth a look!

    Etch A Cell also ran the Powerhouse Hunt project, in which users were asked to draw around each mitochondria seen in images. The goal was to significantly improve understanding of mitochondrial biology and, by assisting with the process of manual segmentation, this helped train computers to automatically segment. The results can be see here.


    This outline was written as part of Victoria University of Wellington's Citizen Scientists in the Classroom project funded by the Ministry of Education's Teaching & Learning Research Initiative.

      Published 4 April 2019, Updated 2 November 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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