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Online Biology Game Could Change Future of Science

Playing an online game might help individuals contribute to scientific advancements. Could the average person end up playing a major role in science in the future?

eterna

Creating an Online Community of Assistants

In January, the site EteRNA was launched by Rhiju Das, a biochemist at Stanford, and Adrien Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon. The two now serve as the principal investigators of the project.

The site asks its players, who number in the tens of thousands, to complete challenge puzzles where they design the sequences for the molecule ribonucleic acid, or RNAs. These molecules help send DNA information to the portion of cells that create protein. EteRNA says that RNAs 'play key roles in the fundamental processes of life and disease,' although scientists are still trying to fully understand them. Through their participation, players are able to contribute to 'the first large-scale library of synthetic RNA designs.'

How Does it Work?

Players create their own EteRNA account. Tutorials help teach RNA design basics and points are earned by completing puzzle challenges. Once players earn at least 10,000 points, they are able to join the 'lab,' where they actually create RNA designs that could end up in a real lab.

Each week, the players vote on the RNA designs in the virtual lab and the one that receives the most votes is actually used for an experiment in the lab. Afterwards, the researchers report back to the EteRNA community about how it went and players are able to get feedback for their designs, which can make this an interesting learning experience for players.

The game's investigators are happy with what the players are producing. Treuille told The Chronicle of Higher Education, 'EteRNA players are extremely good at designing RNAs, which is all the more surprising because the top algorithms published by scientists are not nearly so good. The gap is pretty dramatic.'

The Benefits of Getting Online Communities Involved

Online communities such as EteRNA create unique opportunities for people all over the world to get involved in science as the subject is made more accessible. The game format helps address some of the apprehension players might have about getting involved by offering them the chance to learn more about the topic and design before they jump right into 'lab' work.

Of course this game also benefits the scientists. It can be difficult to afford all of the man power scientists would like to have in their labs, so this gives them a chance to get help from additional people. While players are creating the designs, scientists can focus their attention on other work that needs to be done.

If this model continues to be successful, more scientists and researchers might benefit from coming up with ways to get the online community involved in their work.

Those with a passion for science could also be interested in the online community The Citizen Scientist.