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Researchers Enlisting Gamers To Understand Genetic Diseases


Long-time readers may remember our coverage of Foldit, an online game that was created to enlist gamers in halting diseases like Alzheimer's (which is currently dismantling, piece by piece, the minds of 35 million people) and HIV (which, in 2009, wiped out about as many people as live in Prague and left ten times that number orphaned). The game allows researchers to harness the unique capacity of the brain to manage complex spatial transformations and, encouragingly, it's showing results.

For the past year, researchers from Montréal's McGill University have been pushing their own flash-based game Phylo in the hopes of better understanding the complex alignment of the human genome. According to one of the project leads, Jérôme Waldispuhl, Phylo is meant to feel like a game so that it will cater to as broad an audience as possible, but there's much going on under the puzzle-game surface to help researchers understand important particulars of human genetics:

"If it's not fun, people won't play it," Waldispuhl said. "We wanted a good trade-off between what's fun, and what's the interesting information in science... so that when we provide the game on the web, people won't think about the biological problem, but just have fun and be entertained."

One year on, the game has had more than 500 000 hits, helping understand the alignment of 521 genes, and has been expanded to include a smartphone and tablet-friendly version. As with Foldit, Phylo helps researchers perform something that is difficult for computers to do; in this case, it's pattern recognition. After a brief tutorial, you can jump right into the game by selecting the level of difficulty, a particular level, or by selecting the type of disease you'd like to help with (the game lists a great many diseases that it targets, but you choose by super-ordinate categories such as "Brain and Nervous System" and "Cancer"). The goal of the game is to move around coloured blocks that represent nucleotides, aligning them in a way that makes the most sense possible and conserves the overall colour pattern. Beat the computer and you move on to the next segment, trying to find patterns across many species. The point for the researchers is to find evolutionarily significant sequences that may point to important sites and important mutations.

The game is often a challenge, which should be unsurprising given the staggering complexity of the subject matter, and it's structured around a tried-and-true video game dynamic: Beating high scores and rankings. Phylo is free, and currently available in French and English. The design team is looking for translators so it can be available in other languages as well. Of course, there's also a Facebook group for all you social media types. After playing it for more than a day now I've noticed that, like most puzzle games, once you get over the learning curve the addiction starts to set in; however, the great thing about the game is you feel like you're not just killing time.

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