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Phylo

(Cross posted to Bench Press)

A few years ago, I blogged about an ingenious crowdsourced game called Fold.It. The concept was pretty simple:

  • Use human intuition to help solve complicated three-dimensional protein folding challenges which is oftentimes as effective but significantly faster & cheaper than computational algorithms
  • Pool together lots of human volunteers
  • Turn the whole experience into a game to get more volunteers to spend more time

The result was a nifty little game which contributed findings which have made it, to date, into a number of peer-reviewed publications (see PNAS paper here and Nature Structure & Molecular Biology paper here)!

Well some researchers at McGill University in Canada want to take a page out of this playbook with a game they built called Phylo (HT: MedGadget) to help deal with another challenging issue in bioinformatics: multiple sequence alignment. In a nutshell, to better understand DNA and how it impacts life, we need to see how stretches of DNA line up with one another. Now, computers are extremely good at taking care of this problem for short stretches of DNA and for “roughly” aligning longer stretches of DNA – but its fairly difficult and costly to do it accurately for long stretches using computer algorithms.

People, however, are curiously intuitive about patterns and shapes. So, the researchers turned the multiple sequence alignment problem into a puzzle game they’ve called Phylo (see image below) where the goal is to line up multiple colored blocks. Players tackle the individual puzzles (in a browser or even on their mobile phone) and the researchers aggregate all of this into improved sequence alignments which help them better understand the underlying genetics of disease.

image

And how has it been doing? According to the McGill University press release:

So far, it has been working very well. Since the game was launched in November 2010, the researchers have received more than 350,000 solutions to alignment sequence problems. “Phylo has contributed to improving our understanding of the regulation of 521 genes involved in a variety of diseases. It also confirms that difficult computational problems can be embedded in a casual game that can easily be played by people without any scientific training,” Waldispuhl said. “What we’re doing here is different from classical citizen science approaches. We aren’t substituting humans for computers or asking them to compete with the machines. They are working together. It’s a synergy of humans and machines that helps to solve one of the most fundamental biological problems.

With the new games and platforms, the researchers are hoping to encourage even more gamers to join the fun and contribute to a better understanding of genetically-based diseases at the same time.

Try it out – I have to admit I’m not especially good with puzzle games, so I haven’t been doing particularly well, but the researchers have done a pretty good job with the design of the game (esp. relative to many other academic-inspired gaming programs that I’ve seen) – and who knows, you might be a key contributor to the next big drug treatment!

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