How a Computer Game Crowdsources Genetic Research

Researchers at McGill University have launched an intriguing game that’s half Tetris and half disease fighting.



Canadian scientists have stumbled on a
novel way to conduct genetic studies: Using a game to
crowdsource the deciphering of human DNA.

The new project, Phylo,
was launched by a team at Montreal’s McGill University on November
29. Players are allowed to recognize and sort human genetic code
that’s displayed in a Tetris-like format. Phylo, which runs in Flash,
allows users to parse random genetic codes or to
tackle DNA patterns related to real diseases. In a random game, a
user found himself assigned to DNA portions linked to exudative
vitreoretinopathy 4 and vesicoureteral reflux 2.

According to project co-supervisor
Jérôme Waldispuhl, the game is designed to harness creative
thinking on the part of players:

“There are some calculations that
the human brain does more efficiently than any computer can, such as
recognizing a face […] Recognizing and sorting the patterns in the
human genetic code falls in that category. Our new online game
enables players to have fun while contributing to genetic
research–players can even choose which genetic disease they want to
help decode. […] We’re hoping that people will enjoy playing the
game and that many participants will sign up […] This is an
opportunity for people to use their free time to contribute in an
extremely important way to medical research.”

Players choose from a variety of categories such as digestive system
diseases, heart diseases, brain diseases and cancer. All the DNA
portions in the game are linked to different
diseases. Once completed, they are analyzed and stored in a database; McGill intends to use players’ results in the game to optimize future genetic

Fast Company just published an extensive piece on the
infiltration of gaming into education, advertising and media
McGill’s project is a perfect example of this: Rather than following
the observer-centered model of  crowdsurfing efforts such as
SETI@Home, Phylo opts for a
participatory model that turns players at home into impromptu


And Phylo’s creators,
Alex Kawrykow and Gary Roumanis, are intent on getting ordinary players rather than academics. Phylo has
an active Facebook page
and, in promotional materials, McGill
expressed its hope to port the game to Facebook.

The DNA patterns assigned
to users were already aligned by a heuristic algorithm. Although the
game might be fun, players will essentially be optimizing
already-parsed data for the researchers. It’s like Tetris but with
the ability to make a significant difference in disease research.