Gamers crush algorithms in RNA structure design challenge

Online gamers have bested supercomputer-powered algorithms in an RNA structure design challenge. Faced with 100 RNA secondary structure design challenges, a distributed network of online gamers aced every problem, while the best of the algorithms barely scraped a mark of 50%.

The design challenges form part of the Eterna game researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, created as a spinoff from the influential Foldit project, which put gamification on the map when laypeople in its community solved the structure of a retroviral enzyme that had mystified experts for years. Now, Eterna is staking its place as a standard-bearer for gamification and internet-scale experiments.

In Eterna, gamers manipulate chemical sequences of RNA to create stable forms of desired shapes. The game, which has 100,000 registered players, has given scientists insights into what makes RNA hard or easy to fold. And, according to a paper published in the Journal of Molecular Biology this week, people still hold the edge over machines in resolving RNA design challenges.

The researchers behind the paper challenged gamers and 6 algorithms to solve 100 RNA structures. Collectively, the gamers aced every challenge. The algorithms were less successful. One algorithm solved 54 structures, while another blitzed 50 in double quick time, but none could come close to the success rate of the gamers. All of the algorithms were stumped by symmetrical structures.

Work is now underway to build the strategies designed by players, who identified specific structural features that make inverse RNA folding hard, into the algorithms. "Given the success of Eterna players on even the hardest problems, we are optimistic that integrating their strategies into algorithms will lead to improvement in automated RNA secondary structure design," the researchers wrote.

While looking forward to a time when algorithms can put up a better fight against humans, the team behind Eterna has also gone further than most in championing the work of their gamers. The paper released this week includes two authors who came to Eterna as gamers. Their contributions to the research are recognized alongside those of academics from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Rhiju Das, senior study author and a biochemist at Stanford, thinks such close involvement of gamers could become more common. "This work indicates that online gamers can actually take the lead on defining research questions and write up their own results," Das told Reuters. "Those have traditionally been the role of academically trained scientists."

- read the paper (PDF)
- and Reuters' take