New "Phylo" Online Game Helps Crack Genetic Code Every Time You Play

By Anthony Marcusa Comment

If ever online gamers feel a tinge of guilt wasting time, there is now an opportunity to be productive while playing around. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec have developed an online puzzle called Phylo, a program that will help them solve genetic sequencing problem; and they want you.

Last week, computer scientist Jérôme Waldispuhl, colleague Mathieu Blanchette, and undergraduate students Alex Kawrykow and Gary Roumanis launched the game which they describe as a “framework for harnessing the computing power of mankind to solve a common problem: multiple sequence alignments.”

The impetus for the game is that even computer programs cannot identify the sheer multitude of possible DNA sequence alignments. Humans, they argue, have developed the skills to uniquely solve such puzzles effectively and efficiently, thus offering researchers new solutions. Different alignments may infer evolutionary, functional, or structural relationships between organisms. Thankfully users do not need to do any research.

While the science is complex, the gaming is simple.

The object of the game is to move lines of colored squares into different combinations to create as many matches as possible to the rows adjacent. There are four colors, each of which represents a nucleotide: adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Every line meanwhile, represents the DNA sequences of a different animal, such as humans, bats, and cows. The key is to find as many matches as possible while creating the fewest gaps. It requires the user to make decisions, weighing the importance of gaps versus mismatches. And of course the clock is running, and you have a computer score to beat.

The game itself takes a bit of work to fully digest initially, especially with the science hovering over it during the tutorial. Once you get the hang of it, like any game, it runs smoothly. The lowers levels are easier, naturally, as they represent sequences between animals that are more closely related. As you increase in levels, the number of pieces per line increases as does the number of total lines.

Users have the option of playing with different numbers of sequences which equate with levels of difficulty, but users can also work with lines associated to a particular disease. In a way, albeit a very small one, you are contributing to finding a potential cure. At whichever point you finish the game, the results are sent back to the researchers.

The idea of using games to help contribute to science is nothing new. Earlier this year researchers at the University of Washington demonstrated the way in which gamers are better equipped than computers at figuring out how to best fold a protein for studies in physics. The game is Foldit, but compared to Phylo, it is far more abstract and complicated to both understand and play.

When Phylo launched last week, as many as 1,500 people signed up, solving over 7,000 puzzles in the first few days. While the current program is written in Flash, the group plans to create the game for other platforms, including Facebook and mobile devices, while also creating it in different languages.

All of this may sound complicated, but rest assured the research and science is done by the creators, not the users. Waldispuhl and his colleagues made sure the game is easy to use, while clearing illustrating the contribution to genetic research. For many the game can be yet another distraction from the day, but all should take comfort in the fact that one person’s diversion is another person’s data.