Human brains can be better at visual-pattern recognition than even the best computers. And that's the idea behind a fun new puzzle game with the not-so-fun name Phylo: A Human Computing Framework for Comparative Genomics (Phylo for short). It lets players race against time to match moving blocks into like patterns that actually give scientists insight into genetic code.
Pieces in the game, created by bioinformaticians at Canada's McGill University and officially launched yesterday, represent parts of the human genome. By solving each puzzle, a person is actually helping create multiple sequence alignments, which are arrangements of sequences of DNA, RNA, or protein that identify regions of similarity. The idea is that biologists can then gather genetic data about the strands that the puzzles represent to find genetic links between species.
The puzzles get harder as the game goes on, making for good replay. People play against the computer, as well as others, to get the best possible score on each puzzle, with scores depending on how the colored shapes are arranged. There are no concrete prizes, but it's still a fun and challenging way to get bragging rights (the only gripe I had while playing is that the orange and green blocks can be confusing for those of us who are color blind).
The matching blocks represent genetic code between two or more organisms. For example, a dog and a wolf, when their sequences are aligned, will have more similarities to one another than a dog and a cat. But at some point, enough data may be made available by playing the game to point to the sole common ancestor of both the dog and the cat, whatever that may be. The data can even be used to discover genetic anomalies that cause diseases like breast cancer, the McGill researchers say.
Gaps in the puzzle represent mutations and are to be avoided if at all possible, but even the best puzzles will include them. And that's natural; mutations are what allowed us to evolve into us.
When a puzzle is solved, the information is analyzed and stored in the University of California, Santa Cruz's genome browser, a database that catalogs the billions of stretches of genetic information and makes them for available for scientists in a usable visual digest.
The genomes being sequenced are huge, of course, on the order of billions of blocks each, but the idea is that by making the game free and fun, work that computers have a hard time quantifying can essentially be crowdsourced.
On another level, though, it's interesting to see something like hard-core genetic science getting gamified.* Right now, games like Foursquare are making games out of simple things like going shopping, giving business owners a tool to get people into their establishments while making it fun for their customers to opt-in. Disguising data as a game is a great way to make money, as well as potentially solve complex scientific problems.
*And yes, "gamify" is a word. It means to make something into a game, and you'll be seeing a lot of it in the next year.