Video gamers are advancing the frontiers of science. Already, they've played games that ultimately help map the shapes of proteins. Now they're also advancing scientists’ knowledge of genetics.

A Web-based video game called Phylo allows game players to arrange sequences of colored blocks that represent nucleotides of human DNA. The game asks the players to recognize patterns and match them up in closely related species, comparing their results to a computer and scoring them. Phylo was developed by Dr. Jerome Waldispuhl of the McGill University School of Computer Science and collaborator Mathieu Blanchette.  

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By looking at the similarities and differences between these DNA sequences, scientists can get insight into genetically based diseases. For example, one part of the game shows a human and a mouse, and the challenge is to align the nucleotides correctly in a gene connected with familial Alzheimer’s disease. Once that is completed, the two sequences are compared with that of a dog and a new level of the game starts.

The trick is aligning the nucleotides — the order can’t be changed, but figuring out where along the sequence each one should go is a challenge, especially when one considers less-closely related species. That kind of intuitive pattern recognition is not something computers are very good at. This doesn’t mean humans can replace computers. In this instance, machines did a lot of the heavy lifting. But the problem was the case of misaligned sequences, which the computers weren’t always able to spot.

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The game was launched in November 2010. Since thenm 17,000 registered players have contributed more than 350,000 solutions to alignment sequence problems. An added perk: players can also choose which specific disease they’d like to help with, such as cancer or leukemia.

Via McGill University

Image: McGill University