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Gaming Goes Molecular

January 11, 2011

A new online game developed by Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Universities is the first to connect virtual reality with the real world.

Called EteRNA, it harnesses game play to uncover principles for designing molecules of RNA.

Biologists believe RNA may be the key regulator of everything that happens in living cells.

Understanding its design could prove useful for treating or controlling such diseases as HIV.

But the game doesn’t end with the highest computer score.

Rather, players are scored and ranked based on how well their virtual designs can be rendered as real, physical molecules.

Each week’s top designs are synthesized in a biochemistry laboratory.

This lets researchers see if the resulting molecules fold themselves into the 3D shapes predicted by computer models.

“Putting a ball through a hoop or drawing a better poker hand is the way we’re used to winning games. In EteRNA you score when the molecule you’ve designed can assemble itself,” said CMU’s Adrien Treuille.

Treuille is an assistant professor of computer science at CMU. He leads the EteRNA project with Rhiju Das, assistant professor of biochemistry at Stanford.

Treuille noted, “Nature provides the final score “” and nature is one tough umpire.”

Because EteRNA is crowd-sourcing the scientific method “” in other words, enlisting non-experts to uncover mysterious RNA design principles “” it is essential that scoring be rigorous.

“Nature confounds even our best computer models,” said Jeehyung Lee, a computer science Ph.D. student at CMU who led the game’s development.

“We knew that if we were to truly tap the wisdom of crowds, our game would have to expose players to every aspect of the scientific process. Design, yes, but also experimentation, analysis of results and incorporation of those results into future designs.”

“These experiments are the first-line strategy for validating a design and a crucial part of the scientific method,” said Das, whose lab at Stanford synthesizes the molecules.

The EteRNA project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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