A new online game harnesses the computational power of idle brains to help decipher the origins of genetic diseases.
The game, called Phylo, stands on the shoulders of crowdsourced science giants like the protein-folding game Foldit and the celestial object identification powerhouse Galaxy Zoo. Each project takes advantage of humans’ prowess at pattern recognition, something computers are notoriously terrible at.
“There are some tasks that humans can do better than computers, like solving puzzles,” said bioinformatics expert Jerome Waldispuhl of McGill University, one of Phylo’s project leaders. The game was officially launched Nov. 29.
Phylo players move colored squares representing the four nucleotides of DNA to find the best alignment between snippets of DNA from two different species. These particular sections of DNA, called promoter regions, determine which parts of the genome end up as traits in the organism, whether it be blue eyes or heart disease.
Seeing where the genes line up across species can help biologists pinpoint the sources of genetic disorders.
“If some region is conserved across all species after alignment, it probably was conserved for some very specific reason,” Waldispuhl said. “We should be able to provide better understanding of the reason for which mutation potentially will create a disease, or why this disease appears.”
Unlike in Foldit or Galaxy Zoo, the science in Phylo is pretty well hidden. It feels like an abstract puzzle game, with colorful shapes and jazzy music. That was deliberate, Waldispuhl says.
“We don’t want to be restricted only to the people interested in science,” he said. Science geeks won’t need as much convincing to play a game that helps research move forward, he says. The Phylo developers want the game to appeal to people who would otherwise play Farmville.
“If it’s not fun, people won’t play it,” Waldispuhl said. “We wanted a good trade-off between what’s fun, and what’s the interesting information in science… so that when we provide the game on the web, people won’t think about the biological problem, but just have fun and be entertained.”
The team hopes to make versions of the game for smart phones and tablets, and eventually to incorporate it into social networking sites like Facebook. The game already has its own Facebook page, where you can leave feedback.
“The only way to make it better for the community is to release it to the community, and open it to comments from around the world,” Waldispuhl said.