Video gamers shed new light on 521 disease genes

We live in a time when just about anyone with a computer and web connection can participate in disease research via online video games. About a year after the release of a game of this kind called "Phylo," thousands of players have helped solve DNA-sequence puzzles of sorts to aid research on the genetic underpinnings of ailments such as Alzheimer's, cancer and diabetes.

Developed at the McGill School of Computer Science in Montreal, the online game challenges players to tidy up multiple DNA sequences represented as differently colored blocks. The game presents the tasks as colorful puzzles, but by playing, people--even non-scientists--can have a hand in solving sequence alignment problems that experts' computer algorithms missed, according to the group. After a year online and with 17,000 users registered, the video game has provided 350,000 fixes to alignment sequence problems and insights into 521 disease-related genes.

"Computers are best at handling large amounts of messy data, but where we require high accuracy, we need human," Jérôme Waldispuhl, one of the game's two developers at McGill, stated. "In this case, the genomes we're analyzing have already been pre-aligned by computers, but there are parts of it that are misaligned. Our goal is to identify these parts and transform the task of aligning them into a puzzle people will want to sort out."

Phylo appears to be another example of how online video games can succeed in gathering solutions to scientific problems from laypeople. It's also reducing the burden of any one computer or small group of large computers to process large amounts of scientific information, because thousands of people are presumably playing the game on personal computers.

The video game Foldit, which the University of Washington released in 2008, has been another successful feat of crowdsourcing and distributed computing. Foldit players captured headlines earlier this year for solving the protein structure of an AIDS-related enzyme in a matter of weeks after the problem had stumped experts for more than a decade.

Phlyo's creators at McGill have taken another step to put their game in the hands of the masses, releasing a new version of the game for tablet computers last week.

- here's McGill's release
- see the Medgadget post