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Science Really Can Be All Fun And Games!

Posted in: Fun Stuff
An image of cells to depict free PCR

If there’s something I love more than science, it’s the internet.  The way it brings information and people together is astounding!

There is also huge potential for the internet to be used for good.   One application that I find fascinating is crowd sourcing to engage people in research – using vast numbers of people from all walks of life to generate or interpret data.  (As an aside, one of the first examples of crowd sourcing was the inception of the Oxford English dictionary, before the internet was even conceived of!  Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” is a lovely depiction of the ambition and scale involved in producing the first OED.)

There is enormous potential for linking processing power through the internet.  When it comes to crowd sourcing in the interests of science, physicists and astronomers have been blazing the trail.  Now, molecular biologists are following suit, and have developed some unique approaches that enlist a wide audience to tackle legitimate scientific questions.  Even cooler, some of these applications take the form of fun online games!  So if you need a break from the bench, put in a few guilt-free hours of gaming while still saving the world.  Here are three of my favourites:

Foldit:  Run by Rosetta, this innovative approach to developing algorithms that predict protein structure allows users to play with actual protein sequences with unsolved structures. The proof of the potential of crowd-sourcing for scientific problems was demonstrated recently when foldit participants beat structural gurus in developing the most accurate model of a simian AIDS protein that has been eluding experts for more than a decade (M-PMV).

Phylo: If DNA is more your thing, developers at McGill University Centre for Bioinformatics are enlisting puzzle enthusiasts for multiple sequence alignments.  By harnessing our brilliant skills of pattern recognition, costly computational analysis of the entire human genome can be stripped down a few fun-filled hours of DNA tetris.

EteRNA: And let’s not forget RNA. Developed by Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University, the goal of this game is to compile a library of synthetic RNAs that could be potentially useful for the treatment of diseases.  Gameplay involves altering bases along an RNA stand to facilitate folding into a target structure.

So there you have it, the pillars of biology wrapped up in three games.  What’s great about these sites is that they are engaging, enjoyable and educational, and they make the life sciences accessible to a vast audience.

Have you come across any exciting sites that use crowd sourcing to advance research?

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1 Comment

  1. Sean Scully on November 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    FoldIt is a blast and I recommend it to all of my students (and coworkers). I only wish folding laundry was as much fun. While not in the realm of biological science (or games in the strictest sense), the GalaxyZoo project has certainly provided my children and I hours of fun.

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