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McGill University

Align the blocks so the colors match and try not to leave spaces, these are the basic instructions of Phylo.

Scientists outsource their work via computer game

by Marcella McCarthy
Dec 08, 2010

Computers can beat the best human at chess. In checkers, they can solve the whole problem, but when it comes to genetic alignment, humans still come in first.

Bioinformaticians at McGill University in Canada are capitalizing on the power of the human brain and the Internet’s far reaching web by launching a computer game called Phylo: A Human Computing Framework for Comparative Genomics.  

By playing the game and aligning the colored squares, one is helping the scientific community get a step closer to solving the age-old problem of multiple sequence alignment.  

“A sequence alignment is a way of arranging the sequences of DNA, RNA or protein to identify regions of similarity,” the game explains. Biologists can use this information to map out the source of genetic diseases, such as breast cancer.  

The term genome is used to describe all of an organism’s hereditary information. 

“Some regions of the genome never changed since the origin,” said Jerome Waldispuh, a computer science professor at McGill University who worked on Phylo.

“The goal of science today is to understand how and where the function of an organism is encoded in the DNA,” said Saurahb Sinha, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Sinha also works in bioinformatics and conducts research in the application of computer science to molecular biology.

Too big of a problem 

The problem of multiple sequence alignment is too big for computers to handle. “This is due in part to the sheer size of the genome, which consists of roughly three billion base pairs,” the game explains. 

Gamers can pick from an array of genetic diseases that they’d like to play toward solving such as metabolic disorders or those of the brain and nervous system. 

Computers can calculate many things faster than humans, but not all. “There are some kinds of problems computers can’t do very well, it depends on the structure of the problem,” said Alan Moses, a professor in the department of cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto.

And when it comes to pattern recognition, humans are still a step ahead.

“Humans have intuition that computers don’t have,” Waldispuh said. And that’s why he intends to cast his net even further and launch Phylo on Facebook in a couple of months. He’s hoping to put Facebook users to work on this three billion-part problem. Scientists have jumped on the bandwagon of outsourcing, but in this case, they aren’t paying a dime.

In return though, players might learn a thing or two. “This game seems to attempt to involve people that are not part of the scientific community at all,” Moses said. “That’s the most valuable contribution.”