Thanks to the work of McGill professors Jérôme Waldispühl and Mathieu Blanchette, anyone with access to the Internet can contribute to current research in molecular biology. The duo designed a computer game known as Phylo, aimed at harnessing the problem solving abilities of humans to decipher the multiple sequence alignment problem—comparing sequences of DNA, RNA, and proteins to identify regions of similarity. These comparisons can be used to trace the source of certain genetic diseases. Though the game was released in 2010, it has recently gained attention for its innovative use of citizen science, and the future applications of similar technologies.
Phylo allows you to slide coloured blocks back and forth to align them with other similarly coloured blocks, leaving as few gaps as possible. These blocks represent the DNA, RNA, and proteins that are present in our genome (the genetic material of an organism). Accompanied by piano music and resembling a cross between Tetris and Connect Four, this computer game is one of several crowd-sourcing initiatives to engage non-scientific volunteers in researching and troubleshooting scientific questions.
“We wanted to tap into casual gamers, not into people with a foundation in science. That’s why we make it accessible: You can just go on a website, play one game and leave. It takes 30 seconds, and it might change your mind; [if] you had fun, and you’ll reuse it,” Waldispühl explained in an interview this September with the Globe & Mail.
While computer algorithms are usually used for comparing genomes, these programs do not generate optimal results. According to the Phylo website, “This is due in part to the sheer size of the genome, which consists of roughly three billion base pairs, and the increasing computational complexity resulting from each additional sequence in an alignment.”
With Phylo, humans have the opportunity to improve the algorithms that the computer has already generated. Waldispühl and Blanchette based this idea on the fact that humans have evolved to recognize patterns and solve visual problems efficiently.
The comparison of genomes is one of the most powerful tools in molecular biology. It aids in identifying new genes and mapping DNA. Most importantly, by comparing sequences between animals, biologists can trace the source of certain genetic diseases—a process the public may now contribute towards.
Phylo can be accessed at: http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca