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U. genetics Web site is an Internet sensation

Visitors see a comparison of the size of items from a coffee bean down to a single carbon atom

Published: Saturday, Nov. 7 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

It was bigger than Facebook and even Twitter, had more visits than Michael Jackson's new movie site and others boasting the latest breaking news around the world.

A microscopic look at various cells, created by scientists at the University of Utah, became a huge Internet sensation last week as one of the top-10 visited sites.

The site, which has been around for more than a year, grew in popularity after a link showed up on a random social networking site at the end of October — and it just spread from there, garnering more than a million visits.

"It's the most widely disseminated genetics site in the world," said Louisa A. Stark, director of the U.'s Genetic Science Learning Center, which created "Cell size and scale," available online at learn.genetics.utah.edu, to help people understand size at a microscopic level.

Traffic on the U.'s cell site grew more than 10 times what is normal — on Oct. 30 it was getting 270 hits per second for six straight hours, which "speaks to the power of online social networking," Stark said.

"It's designed to make you feel like you're in control," she said. People have an innate seeking behavior, Stark said, "and this site just draws you in."

The site, which animates the comparison and size of items from a coffee bean and a human egg down to a water molecule and a single carbon atom, is now linked to more than 20,000 other sites, including "Team SuperForest," who host a blog that collects and explores a blog "the best ideas, the happiest news, and every ol' thing that inspires us all," according to the site.

The team calls the U. innovation "impressive" and wrote, "It's a clever tool and you can't deny the fact that it's kinda fun."

Stark said actually seeing the size of germs and other viruses helps people to know how small they really are and how they could be lurking anywhere.

Although some of the organisms shown might still be visible to the naked eye, the site compares various cells and organisms on a 0.1-mm scale, which is the measurement that has been scientifically determined to be the smallest an unaided human eye can see. As a sliding zoom tool on the site is used, more and more cells become visible, but they are made that way using various microscopes. Notes have been added to the site to explain why an X chromosome appears bigger than a sperm, which typically contains 23 of them.

"It's really fascinating to see so many people using it," Stark said. "It reveals that the general public is really interested in science when it's easier to understand."

The center is charged with the mission of making science easy for everyone to understand. Along with the popular Web site, which in 1995 was one of the first scientific education sites in the world, scientists involved with the center help to develop educational material for schools all over, provide workshops and course plans to hundreds of thousands of teachers and students and facilitate community programs to teach about genetics and health.

Educating people about simple scientific concepts helps to alleviate misconception and fear, Stark said.

On the Web:

learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/cells/scale/index.html

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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