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Anyone able to play Tetris can play Phylo, as I learned in my "research" of online life sciences games. The ease of the game was all part of the plan when Jérôme Waldispühl and his colleagues at McGill University created Phylo in 2010, providing a way for even elementary school kids to play a part in improving DNA sequence alignments among species.
Sequence alignment is one of the basic tasks software performs after machines decode DNA, and matching sequences from, say, a human and a rat can help identify areas of the genome with important functions among species. Yet the computerized methods of sequence alignment aren't perfect, Waldispühl explained, and Phylo taps human eyeballs from around the world to take over where the machines leave off to improve alignments.
What the McGill game designers have done is reduce the four basic building blocks of DNA into color-coded blocks that are blue, orange, purple and green. Which colors go with which building blocks, and what do the sequences mean, all that is irrelevant in this game. It's all about lining up horizontal lines of blocks into vertical columns of the same color. Pretty simple. Of course, the designers have created the game this way on purpose.
"Science needs more and more volunteers to help, not in the most difficult tasks, but also in a lot of data-collection and data-aggregation tasks that can be achieved without high qualifications," Waldispühl said in an interview.
More than 30,000 registered users of Phylo have done more than 600,000 sequence alignments involving hundreds of disease-related genes. Yet Waldispühl and his team have taken action to attract many more players. In December they released versions of the game in Chinese, Korean, Russian and Romanian after the initial launch in English and French.
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