Crowdsourcing has been a driving factor behind Web 2.0. There are user-populated encyclopedias, user-populated dictionaries, and even user-populated news sites. The University of Washington, McGill University, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford took note of the power of Internet users and decided to try to harness it for medical research – through puzzle-for-science games.
Foldit was launched in 2008 in Seattle at the University of Washington. Users configure proteins like building blocks into possible combinations. The game specifies certain rules that follow real protein behavior, i.e. which proteins can connect and build off each other and which can’t. Scientists then review all combinations to see whether they are new or not. In a matter of a few weeks of the games premier, users submitted breakthrough combinations that helped scientists to understand new structures and behaviors of proteins. In fact, one novel construction unlocked the secret to an enzyme that explains why HIV multiplies.
With more than 100,000 different types of proteins in just human bodies (not including animal or insect proteins), there is a long way for players and researchers to go to uncover how all of these proteins contribute to the biological makeup of organisms and biological relationships. Step aside MMORPGs e.g. World of Warcraft, games about protein building have become more exciting than slaying dragons in an online world.
Prior to creating a game for protein building, researchers simply ran combinations through a computer to try all of the possibilities. However, after testing the theory that actual humans could create better structures, scientists and actual research found that humans take more risks in their protein combinations and think about long-term results when building (unlike algorithms and computer programs), which make their combinations more unique. Also, human players can utilize spatial reasoning, which computers are not as adept at using.
But what’s the incentive for users to play, aside from just playing a fun game? Users are awarded points based on the ingenuity of the structure of their protein. High scores for specific levels are posted on the Foldit website so users can try to best each other. In the results Foldit published in the scientific journal Nature in 2010, over 57,000 Foldit players were listed in the acknowledgements. That seems like a good reason for playing as well.
While Foldit focuses on proteins, Phylo (the game created at McGill University in Montreal) focuses on DNA and RNA sequencing. Users don’t have to start from scratch though. The algorithm that processed the sequences when people weren’t playing the game optimizes the strands for users and then the users look at the freshly color-coded building blocks to try to recognize patterns and improve on what’s been done by the computer program. The one year old game has 17,000 users already. From users’ unique sequences, creators of the game are hoping to find explanations for genetic diseases.
Carnegie Mellon teamed up with Stanford to create EteRNA, a game that also looks at RNA folding, like Foldit. Creators of the game go one step further by taking user-created combinations and programming them into a combination that can test other RNA folding programs. Not only are users discovering more about the nature of RNA, but they’re also helping to improve the computer programs that do the RNA-sequence testing. Combined, these puzzle-for-science games have 100,000 users. Phylo co-creator Mathieu Blanchette stated in a press release that it’s guilt-free gaming because players are furthering science.
Want to test the games for yourself? Phylo, Foldit, and EteRNA are all free to play! And of course, all game developers are accepting donations. (Note that Foldit requires a free download to begin playing).