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Researchers launch ‘woodlice’ citizen science project to help develop an antiviral test

A team of experts who are looking to combat viruses are calling on the general public to help them in a new research project by becoming garden detectives – and hunt for the humble woodlice.

Royce researcher and antiviral expert Dr Sam Jones, from The University of Manchester, is on a quest for blue coloured woodlice as they are actually infested with an insect virus called iridovirus – and isopods like woodlice serve as natural hosts. However, iridovirus poses no threat to humans.

The distinctive blue colour is, in fact, caused by a crystal forming within the diseased creature’s tissue – and from this biochemistry Dr Jones believes a new test could be developed to measure the effectiveness of a revolutionary antiviral material.

Dr Jones has helped to create a new antiviral material to help destroy viruses on contact – and this breakthrough treatment may help in the fight against pandemics.

Dr Jones’ project team will include Royce researcher Dr Ahu Parry, from Manchester’s Department of Materials, an expert in structural colour. Louis Nicholls, currently studying for an Entomology MSc at Harper Adams University, is also advising.

To develop the proposed virus tester, Dr Jones and PhD student Solen Monteil have prepared a page on the SciStarter citizen science website https://scistarter.org/blue-woodlice-detective which contains information to help would-be blue woodlice detectives.

“The general idea is for people to get out and try and find woodlice. Specifically, we are looking for blue woodlice which are infected with a virus and if people find one they can send it to us and we will study the virus.

“The virus is an iridovirus, of which there are lots of different ones – but this specific virus infects woodlice. There is no risk of humans catching this virus.

“We are interested in it because it forms a crystalline structure within the unfortunate woodlouse, that leads to the blue colour. We can potentially use this blue colour as a sign of effectiveness of our antiviral materials.

“The colour comes from the structure of the virus and we want to test our antivirals to see if it destroys the virus on contact – if it does, it should get rid of the blue colour.

“Whether this helps the woodlice or not is still unclear – but it could be a quick colourimetric test to check if our antivirals are effective.”

Volunteers can also visit the Manchester team’s website https://bluewoodlice.wixsite.com/bluewoodlice where their finds can be added to a global map of all woodlice found and follow them on twitter (@bluewoodlice).