Jan. 11, 2011 at 2:55 PM ET
A new online game allows non-scientists to design molecules of RNA and then see how well the best of their virtual creations perform in a real-life lab.
The game, called EteRNA, breaks down a barrier that has long kept the virtual reality of video games separate from the real world and in the process may help scientists build ever more sophisticated RNA machines, according to the game's creators.
RNAs, or ribonucleic acids, have long been recognized as messengers for genetic information, but "we are just beginning to understand how powerful they are," Adrien Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me today.
For one, scientists think RNA regulates cells, acting much like the operating system of a computer. Until recently, though, this role was overshadowed by DNA, which encodes genes and proteins and do the work of the cells.
EteRNA will help scientists understand how RNA folds, knowledge that can then be applied to how it works in viruses and cells. Eventually, RNA could even be used to build little machines and sensors.
"It is an amazing substrate for nanoengineering," Treuille, who lead the design for EteRNA, said. "It is very simple to synthesize, unlike proteins, and it folds up into these really interesting, beautiful shapes which have all sorts of nanoengineering applications."
Playing the game
Players of the game, which is embedded above, use the four bases of RNA — adenine, guanine, uracil and cytosine — to design elaborate structures such as knots and polyhedrals. Each week, the best designs created by the players are synthesized in Rhiju Das' biochemistry lab at Stanford University.
The synthesized designs will allow scientists to see if the resulting molecules fold themselves into the three-dimensional 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, but in EteRNA you score when the molecule you've designed can assemble itself," Treuille commented in a press release announcing the game. "Nature provides the final score — and nature is one tough umpire."
This structure of the game allows non-scientists to take part in nanoengineering, Treuille added in a conversation with me.
"By playing the game and submitting solutions to the lab and then seeing how they synthesize we are hoping to use lots and lots of players to build up a huge storehouse of knowledge about what kinds of designs work and when they don't and to eventually take the (game playing) community on this adventure," he said.
So far, the community that has mushroomed from the original 20 beta testers has already posted to the game's forum scientifically valid descriptions on how to design RNAs that work, he added.
"As we try and design more and more complex things, the community's understanding of how to build things that work is going to increase and, hopefully, enrich not just the players but the scientific community and ultimately expand our understanding of nanoengineering," he said.
EteRNA is similar to other scientific-themed online games, including Foldit, a protein folding game that Treuille helped create while at the University of Washington, and Galaxy Zoo, which tasks users to identify galaxies based on shape. Check out the stories below to learn more about these and other games with a scientific tie.