Building Blocks of Life: Tracking Genetic Diseases Through Casual Gaming

This is a guest post by Dr. Melinda Hough, PhD in Microbiology from Olympia, WA. Twitter: @theroamingnome

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Humans spend more than 3 billion hours playing video games a week. Luckily, scientists are learning to harness our need for an endorphin rush and the power of play to solve some of the most challenging scientific problems of our time.

In Phylo, players rearrange colored blocks representing each of the nucleic acids, or letters of the DNA alphabet, to create the best patterns. These patterns, or multiple sequence alignments (MSAs), help scientists identify regions of DNA with similar structure and function, which may have evolved together, and which may contribute to genetic diseases such as cancer, metabolic disorders and brain or nervous system disorders.

Scientists use MSAs to study how small DNA changes can result in evolution or mutations and disease. However, the vast amount of data available makes the generation of MSAs a very difficult computing problem – computer alignments are only as good as the programming used to make them. Enter you and I – we have an innate ability to recognize visual patterns.

The creators of Phylo chose to create a casual gaming experience by removing the heavy scientific details that would drive away non-scientist gamers. Players are simply asked to align four colored blocks (representing the nucleotides–A,C,G,T) into various visual patterns to achieve the highest score possible and beat both your friends and the computer.

Jérôme Waldispühl, a bioinformatician and the project lead at McGill University, explains, “We offer to web users a casual tetris-like video game to entertain themselves with the knowledge that their effort will be recycled to improve the analysis of biological data.” When asked on Facebook to further explain how playing Phylo was contributing to scientific research, Waldispühl answered, “It helps us to understand which nucleotides are important in our DNA. If we observe one mutation (wrong nucleotide) in the genome of someone with a particular disease, it will help us to identify a potential genetic origin of this disease.”

Since its release in November 2010, Phylo has received over 350,000 solutions to the original 739 problems selected. In addition, over 12,000 registered users submit an average of 300 solutions a day. And you don’t need to register to play! The solutions generated by citizen scientists are compared with the original sequence pattern. If they are better than the computer’s first guess, they are automatically fed back into the MSAs database used by over a hundred researchers around the world.

What makes Phylo so much fun? Not only can you select progressively challenging puzzles ranging from three to eight sequences to align, but you can also select one of seven disease classes to solve puzzles in, personalizing your gaming experience. Now in its second version, Phylo is available in 9 languages and to play on your mobile device while on the go.

Why not go retro and play tetris-Phylo on your ride home?

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Categories: Citizen Science

About the Author

Melinda T. Hough

Melinda T. Hough

Dr. Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.