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Real science & gaming – scientists employ the computing power of human minds

Posted August 20, 2014

Citizen science is on-the-rise like never before, owing largely to the Internet which allows to connect thousands of enthusiasts worldwide into a single network contributing to real science. Even more so, complicated research problems are now being turned into competitive online games, which enable anyone, regardless of their scientific background, to participate in solid research and learn something in the process.

Foldit protein folding puzzle – the players fold known polipeptides into stable 3D structures. Image courtesy of Curtis 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Foldit protein folding puzzle – the players fold known polipeptides into stable 3D structures. Image courtesy of Curtis 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

The value of so called “citizen scientists” has been appreciated for some time now – one scientist can never be in more than one place at once, but thousands of volunteers reporting from all over the world can make life much easier for many an environmental scientist, for example. Moreover, many crowdsourcing initiatives have used the keen eye and critical thinking skills of citizen scientists.

For example, [email protected] project was launched in 2006 to employ the pattern-recognition abilities of the human eye to find possible interstellar dust particles embedded in aerogel from NASA’s Stardust mission. Similarly, Cell Slider initiative asks to recognize and classify cancer cells from numerous microscopic images. Such “distributed thinking” projects have gained a solid niche in volunteer-driven research and are referred to as online (or virtual) citizen science.

Recently, virtual citizen science has wandered into gaming too – a recent paper in Applied & Translational Genomics looks at the games that bring complex biological science to volunteer gamers worldwide and their appeal.

Foldit – protein folding game

Foldit is one of the first and most successful citizen science games turning unknown 3D structures of proteins into puzzles which, as practice shows, are often cracked a lot faster by human participants than computer algorithms. In fact, in just three weeks two teams of Foldit players were able to solve the structure of Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease – a simian AIDS-causing virus protein, which has been the focus of biochemists and protein scientists for a number of years.

Foldit interface allows individual and collaborative play to solve protein puzzles – players share tips and ideas on particular structures (playing strategies, or “recipes”, are collected in the “Cookbook), communicate actively within the group and collect points for the best solutions. The game utilizes the uncanny human three-dimensional problem solving skills and has successfully produced a number of solid scientific publications.

Moreover, Foldit players have contributed to the improvement of protein folding algorithms and even “fixed” some previously computationally designed enzymes to improve their activity and interaction with substrates. Advanced players are offered a chance to design their own proteins – one such design, a synthetic variant of fibronectin, was synthesized in the lab in 2009.

Though the idea of folding proteins from scratch might seem daunting at first, most Foldit players have in fact no background in biochemistry and have become successful players and gained valuable scientific knowledge solely by sticking with the game.

EteRNA – novel RNA design 

Similarly to Foldit, EteRNA is a molecule folding game, except players are asked to fold small RNA molecules and they do so from scratch. That is, instead of trying to unravel the structures of known molecules, volunteers are creating a library of RNAs which could be used to design novel therapeutics in the future. The players can get creative with complex RNA structures, such as lattices, knots and switches, and the best designs are synthesized and tested in the lab.

EteRNA player strategies have also been used to improve old computer algorithms versions. Moreover, research shows that lay participants move through the game quickly and adapt their strategies according to lab-based experiments. The players also actively communicate and share strategies between themselves, and receive feedback from professional scientists involved in the project.

Phylo – comparing genomic sequences

Phylo is a Tetris-like game, which utilizes human pattern recognition skills to compare gene sequences from humans and other animals. The game aims to improve sequence alignments generated by less-than-optimal computer algorithms and gain better understanding of mutations and their role in genetic disease.

Phylo genome alignment puzzle – the players aim to match the colors as best as possible minimizing gaps and misalignments. Image courtesy of Curtis 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Phylo genome alignment puzzle – the players aim to match the colors as best as possible minimizing gaps and misalignments. Image courtesy of Curtis 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

While the science behind Phylo is complex, the game itself is entertaining enough and can be played without any scientific knowledge. Stylized puzzles are appealing to the eye, and the players can choose a disease category which they would like to explore (e.g. infectious or metabolic diseases, cancer, etc.). As such, volunteers may grasp the importance of their work a lot better.

Citizen science games can be played by virtually anyone, and, as research shows, active players gain valuable scientific knowledge even if they have never come across it before. Moreover, knowing that you contribute to real scientific research can be especially rewarding. For scientists, the appeal of turning complex scientific questions into a game lies in the fundamental human skills that outcompete any computer algorithm to-date. In all fairness, three-dimensional problem solving and pattern recognition and similar skills play an important part in traditional gaming as well.

With each of us spending an average of 73 minutes per day playing online games the scientists may have the right idea – why not dedicate at least some of that time to solve complex questions or even cure diseases?

Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė

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