Why Giving Matters

The Game Master

March 3, 2015

Professor Jérôme Waldispühl is using video games to unlock the secrets of genetic disorders

In November 2010, Jérôme Waldispühl, an assistant professor in McGill’s School of Computer Science, released a video game called Phylo to the Internet. The game – which he developed with the help of Mathieu Blanchette, another assistant professor from the School, and two undergraduate students – calls for players to line up a series of coloured blocks.

But while the exercise itself sounds reminiscent of titles like Tetris, the outcome is anything but. The blocks that players are aligning represent the DNA of humans and 44 other species, and by solving the seemingly simple puzzles, they’re actually comparing genomic data, which is then released to researchers for analysis.

“The game uses crowdsourcing and human computing techniques to mine the big data available today,” Waldispühl says.

Once mined, that data may help unlock the secrets of genetic disorders. To date, some 300,000 visitors, 30,000 registrants among them, have submitted approximately 800,000 solutions the game’s problems, which have improved researchers’ understanding of 750 areas of the human genome.

As Waldispühl explains, while pairs of genomic sequences are easy to align, working with vast numbers of them exceeds capacity of even the most muscular computer systems. The human brain, however, processes visual patterns more quickly than machines, making the wisdom of the crowd playing a game like Phylo a powerful scientific tool.

“From early on, I liked the potential that was there,” Waldispühl says. “I realized that this could have an impact on society, and that there really was the possibility to do something interesting.”

But Phylo was only the beginning. In 2013, Waldispühl received the Fessenden Professorship in Science Innovation, an award established through a $1.25-million gift from Dr. John Blachford, BEng’59, PhD’63, DSc’09. Without that funding, he and his team may never have set out to create more complex applications designed to classify a broader swath of data found in the genome.

“We’re trying to develop multiplayer systems that will harness the collective intelligence of the crowd of participants,” Waldispühl says. “We’re trying to solve bigger problems.”

Last November, he started the process anew, developing a prototype for a game that he plans to test this spring. “Based on the outcome, we will try to expand,” he says. “Then we can hire a programmer and re-implement everything from scratch to ready the game for release.”

Waldispühl’s goal is to generate data that will be used by pharmaceutical firms and others in the medical field. At the same time, though, both Phylo and his forthcoming project may also introduce those outside of scientific circles to the fundamentals of genomics. “The long-term objective is also developing the tools to bridge the gap that exists between the scientific community and citizens,” he says.

Ultimately, Waldispühl believes that the success of these projects signals a change in research as a whole.

“I think it’s not just a local phenomenon,” he says. “It’s a shift in terms of the way people learn and the way people work. I hope that we can be part of this global trend.”

Dean of Science Martin Grant says awards like the Fessenden Professorship in Science Innovation result in better dissemination of science ideas hatched at McGill.

“We made a great leap in science to become what we are now,” he says. “We are poised to leap again. With the support of generous and visionary philanthropists like the Blachford family, we will make that leap, and many years from now others will look back on this as a golden age of science at McGill.”

Phylo can be played online here