Science starts with a question. The research is not flashy, even with all of those glinting test tubes and fancy microscopes. It’s slow and specific. Answering that question takes years – sometimes even decades – and that’s just to gather information about one gene or one specific part of a mechanism that might be the solution. There’s no guarantee that the question will ever be answered.

The question is usually big: What causes cancer? Why does this gene mutate? When do neurons age? The path to a solution is usually narrow; it has to be, so how does any one ever choose what to focus on?

When rising fourth-year Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student James Dittmar had to decide on a research project, he was overwhelmed with having to pick just one thing.

“How do you focus?” Dittmar asked. “How do you prioritize research?”

Dittmar explored a number of options with his mentor, Gregorio Valdez, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, but none seemed quite right. It was in that exploration that Valdez was inspired to guide Dittmar into finding his ultimate project – helping others decide how to focus their own research. Thus, EvoCor was born.

EvoCor is a free search engine for genes. Type in a gene and EvoCor searches through thousands of mapped genes, different genomes, and larger datasets maintained by the National Institutes of Health. It pulls together a list of genes that evolved similarly. The genes are ranked by likelihood that they’re related functionally to the initial gene submitted.

Take a gene that is already well studied for a certain disease, like MUSK’s role in motor impairment in aging individuals. A scientist can type MUSK into EvoCor and EvoCor will return a list of possibly related genes that might work with MUSK to impair motor function as people grow older.

It’s not a slam-dunk, but it’s a far cry better than picking a random gene that may or may not be related at all. It’s a starting point.

Read the full story here.