McGill University DNA Game Rolls The Dice With Citizen Science
October 25, 2013

McGill University DNA Game Rolls The Dice With Citizen Science

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

In 2010, a team of bioinformaticians at McGill University developed a game called “Phylo,” a sort of Tetris and Rubik’s Cube hybrid with a scientific bent.

Phylo asks players to line up colored rectangles that represent DNA sequences, thereby spotting genetic anomalies that act as the precursor to diseases like breast cancer, diabetes and tumors. This game has been used as an experiment in action — a way to share some of the tedious work that can only be done by humans as well as understand how these diseases are formed.

After three years of ongoing research, the McGill University team says they’re going to let other scientists use the game to complete their own research. So far one team from the University of Victoria has already asked to be part of the human experiment, and the McGill team expects to hear from many more.

“Playing a game helps lower the barriers that sometimes exist between scientists and the population in general,” said Jérôme Waldispühl, the McGill computer science professor behind Phylo.

“Since we launched Phylo, what I’ve most enjoyed are the conversations I’ve had with people who are interested in science and want to know more about the research. Our goal now is to connect thousands of scientists around the globe with hundreds of thousands of gamers.”

Since Phylo was first launched in 2010, players of every age have suggested solutions to more than 4,000 puzzles, helping scientists complete their research.

While much of their research is conducted by computers, Waldispühl says some work is simply best done by human eyes rather than CPUs and GPUs.

“There are some calculations that the human brain does more efficiently than any computer can. Recognizing and sorting visual patterns fall in that category,” explained Waldispühl in a 2011 interview.

“Computers are best at handling large amounts of messy data, but where we require high accuracy, we need humans. In this case, the genomes we´re analyzing have already been pre-aligned by computers, but there are parts of it that are misaligned. Our goal is to identify these parts and transform the task of aligning them into a puzzle people will want to sort out,” he said.

McGill University isn’t the only place where this kind of experiment is being conducted. Last year scientists from Cancer Research UK (CRUK) released their own game which allows desktop gamers to spot irregularities in cancer cells. Called “Cell Slider,” gamers are asked to spot unusual cells, explain why they’re unusual, and then send them back to the researchers. More than one year after Cell Slider was introduced, CRUK said more than 10,000 people had chipped in to pore over slides of cancer cells and help them in their research.


Image Below: Start screen for Phylo DNA game developed by McGill University researchers. Credit: Phylo/McGill University