Your Science Mission #4: Play games for science
By Emily Chung
Want to be a scientist? Here’s your chance. Accept each mission to observe and explore cool science in the world around you. Report back on your experiences and observations—we’d love to hear about them.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to play an online game to help researchers solve genetics problems.
What? You’re not an expert in genetics? No problem – you don’t need to know anything about genetics at all!
The game is probably similar to ones you already play. It involves sliding coloured tiles around. It’s not hard to learn and it’s also kind of fun!
Even though you don’t need to know any genetics, you’ll be helping scientist by playing the game. That means you’ll get to call yourself a “citizen scientist.”
It all sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it?
The game is called Phylo and it was invented by computer science researchers Jerome Waldispuhl and Mathieu Blanchette at McGill University in Montreal.
They created the game to help answer questions like: What changes in our genetic code – DNA – cause diseases such as diabetes, asthma and obesity? Or how are different species of insects called lanternflies related to each other?
The game has squares of four different colours. Each one stands for a different letter in DNA code.
Players like you are given a “puzzle” – rows of coloured squares representing the genetic code from different animals. You solve the puzzle by aligning the rows to get columns of the same colour. It’s the kind of task that humans are very good at compared to computers.
When you solve the puzzle, it shows scientists how the code of different animals is similar or different. From that, scientists can figure out how closely related the animals are (the more closely related they are, the better the colours will line up) and the locations of genetic mutations (places where the colours don’t line up).
Since Phylo launched in 2010, ordinary gamers have solved more than 260,000 genetic puzzles. That has given genetics researchers lots of valuable information.
Why don’t you give the game a try? Click here to get started.
Emily Chung is a journalist in Toronto who loves exploring. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry.