The hope that swarms of gamers can help to solve difficult biological problems has been given another boost by a report in the journal PLoS One, showing that data gleaned from the online game Phylo are helping to untangle a major problem in comparative genomics. The game was created to address the 'multiple sequence alignment (MSA) problem', which refers to the difficulty of aligning roughly similar sequences of DNA in genes common to many species.
A DNA sequence that is conserved across species suggests that it plays an important role in the ultimate function of that particular gene. Although computer algorithms can do very rough alignments of sequences across species, they have proven inept at getting the answer just right. That is where human gamers can make a difference.
"Understanding when something breaks a general rule is very difficult for a computer but that is what human visual intelligence is very good at," says lead author Jérôme Waldispühl, a computational biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Waldispühl and his colleagues created Phylo with humans' visual intelligence in mind, and released it online in November 2010.
Although other games have been used to solve biological problems - such as Foldit and Folding@home for protein folding - these games require players to understand at least some biochemistry before they start. For Phylo, "players don't have to know anything about genetics to make a contribution," says co-author Mathieu Blanchette. "It's a pure game."