Video game helps advance genetic research into Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer
MONTREAL — A team of McGill University researchers has come up with a way to make playing video games an entirely productive pursuit.
Computer scientist Jerome Waldispuhl, along with collaborator Mathieu Blanchette, developed a video game similar to the popular puzzle game Tetris — except there’s more to it than just stacking blocks.
By analyzing the DNA sequences, scientists are able to gain new insight into the genetic basis of diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer.
The game has enjoyed some popularity, with more than 17,000 people registering online since its November 2010 launch.
“Originally, I think a lot of people came because they are interested in participating in something that contributes to science,” Waldispuhl said in an interview. “But the goal is really to expand that to casual players. People don’t really need to know that it contributes to science to enjoy it.”
The results of the players’ efforts can be retrieved by scientists from a database on the game’s website. So far, researchers have received more than 350,000 solutions to alignment sequence problems.
The game has already improved understanding of the regulation of 521 genes involved in a variety of diseases, Waldispuhl said.
Waldispuhl views the project as an attempt to combine the powers of the human brain with those of a computer.
There are some calculations that humans do more efficiently than any computer can, he said, such as recognizing and sorting visual patterns.
“As humans, we have evolved to handle visual information very efficiently,” he said.
While computers are best at handling large amounts of messy data, Waldispuhl said humans are able to sort through the coloured blocks representing DNA more quickly.
The genomes in the game were pre-aligned by computers, but parts remained slightly misaligned. As players sort out the puzzle in the game, they are also properly aligning the genomes.
Waldispuhl is hoping the game’s popularity continues to grow, creating a larger collection of data for genetic researchers.
With that in mind, Waldispuhl and his team recently created a version for tablets and smartphones.
“The idea is that it should be like Tetris, where people use it to take a break during the day,” he said.
“I would like them to play this instead of other games, because it’s like recycling the energy we are using.”
To play the game or learn more about the research, visit http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca/.