Play FarmVille, and a few virtual chickens lay eggs. Play Phylo, and you could be helping decode a genetic disease.
Researchers at Canada's McGill University have developed a game that involves moving blocks to solve puzzles. But the blocks actually represent elements of the human genome, and as players solve each puzzle they are helping to create models of DNA sequences that can be used to gather genetic data.
The pattern of blocks represents a particular genetic sequence. By aligning different sequences of DNA, RNA or protein, scientists can identify regions of similarity and infer shared evolutionary origins, identify functionally important sites, and illustrate mutation events. More importantly, they can trace the source of certain genetic diseases.
When a puzzle is solved, the data is sent to the University of California, Santa Cruz's genome browser database, where it is analyzed and made available to getnetics researchers.
Each game, naturally, adds only a little to the sum total of knowledge, but the designers hope that if enough people play then it could potentially be used to track down the causes of particularl diseases.
"There are some calculations that the human brain does more efficiently than any computer can, such as recognizing a face,” says lead researcher Dr Jérôme Waldispuhl of the School of Computer Science.
"Recognizing and sorting the patterns in the human genetic code falls in that category. Our new online game enables players to have fun while contributing to genetic research – players can even choose which genetic disease they want to help decode."
The game, called Phylo, has been tested within the scientific community to ensure its accuracy, but was officially launched worldwide this week.
"We’re hoping that people will enjoy playing the game and that many participants will sign up," says Waldispühl.
"This is an opportunity for people to use their free time to contribute in an extremely important way to medical research."
Phylo can be played here.