Guilt-Free Procrastination: This Online Game Could Cure Genetic Diseases

By Jennifer Welsh | November 30, 2010 11:02 am

phyloHave a brain for puzzles? What about ones that help advance science?

A new online game called Phylo is harnessing the power of idle brains on the Internet–asking any and all to help align genomic sequences. Human brain power is used instead of computer power because, as the researchers explain in the press release, humans are still better at some things than computers are:

“There are some calculations that the human brain does more efficiently than any computer can, such as recognizing a face,” explained lead researcher Dr. Jérôme Waldispuhl of the School of Computer Science. “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.”

When game players find the best arrangements of colorful little boxes, they’re really making the best matches they can between the genome sequences of different animals–like a human and a monkey, or a dog and a bat. The researchers, from the structural biology group at McGill University, loaded the sequences of genes related to diseases like breast cancer into the program, adding in the genetic data for many different species. You can then slide the colored boxes (stand-ins for the nucleotides in DNA) around to minimize the number of mismatches and gaps and maximize the number of matched nucleotides. The matches show which parts of the genes have been preserved across different species and are therefore important, according to the Phylo about page:

These similarities may be consequences of functional, structural, or evolutionary relationships between the sequences. From such an alignment, biologists may infer shared evolutionary origins, identify functionally important sites, and illustrate mutation events. More importantly, biologists can trace the source of certain genetic diseases.

What I noticed in playing the game is that the scoring doesn’t seem to fit the game’s objective–the highest points are sometimes awarded for just squishing all the code together, not necessarily for making the most nucleotide matches. I also think the penalty for opening a gap (a stand-in for a genetic mutation) is too weighty. But all in all it’s quite addictive, until you get stuck on a sequence–you can’t move on to the next level until you equal the computer’s score, which, at least in my experience, can be tricky at times, and you can run out of time if you get stuck. Play the tutorial for more information and detailed directions.

In the end, you compare the gene sequences for up to eight different species, trying to make the best matches and beat the computer. Everyone’s alignments are analyzed by the game, and will contribute to the global database as an “optimization” of the computer’s sequence alignments. The creators even plan to create a Facebook application to play the game (which they optimistically say could rival Farmville in popularity), but right now it’s hosted at the group’s website. Give it a try and let us know what you think in the comments.

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Image: Phylo

  • Robert E

    gave it a try — it hangs when I try to register :(

  • Greg W

    I couldn’t register; it’d hang when I clicked OK to register my username/password.
    I also couldn’t play the game as a guest; I’d get a blank screen (with music) after choosing which variant I wanted to play. I tried from multiple PCs and multiple browsers.

  • SNS

    It doesn’t work for me, it shows a blank screen (no music) when I click on “play”. Doesn’t matter which browser I use (Mozilla, Google Chrome), and the entire site will not display using Internet Explorer.

  • StrangerTides

    Same here, not working in either Firefox or MSIE with Adobe Flash Player 10. Too bad; sounds really interesting and I’d like to try it – hope the developers are reading this so they can fix it!

  • BILL7718


  • johnbot

    worked for me :)

  • Jennifer Welsh

    @johnbot — what browser setup are you using? It has been working fine for me also, on Firefox.


  • jemand

    well, I guess I’m at least getting the site to WORK, but the scoring is completely incomprehensible. So far, I get the best score always by just mashing the sequences all together, and finding matches just doesn’t seem to be the point. So… I got bored super quickly.

  • StrangerTides

    Okay, it works for me today. My Firefox downloaded an automatic update, so not sure if that had anything to do with it or if something got fixed.

  • jxchong

    My first reaction was the same as you, that the gap penalty is way too big relative to the mismatch penalty.


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