Noncoding RNA folds into intricate shapes that determine its function, but the rules of nucleotide patterns that determine these shapes are largely unknown. Now, an online game that tasks users to manipulate nucleotides until they fit real RNA shapes is rapidly uncovering those rules, using the brain’s innate ability to recognize patterns and its flare for intuition.
Players of the game EteRNA are given a real-world RNA shape and asked to manipulate a chain of nucleotides to fit that shape, by observing how different patterns of nucleotides form certain structures, like loops or tails. Then, every week, a few molecules are selected for synthesis in a lab at Stanford to see how closely they match the desired shape.
Before EteRNA came along, software algorithms for predicting RNA folding patterns were primitive. Within a few months of the game’s release, human users were outperforming the software in the quest to predict real-world folding patterns. A community of online players collates strategy guides that help them design better molecules, but they also reveal some of the rules of RNA behavior. These rules are being fed back into new and improved algorithms, which are already catching up to the human players.
In this way, EteRNA’s players are not just solving problems, but actually providing real molecular insights into the workings of RNA. Some of the players are even seeking ways to test their models in garage labs without waiting for Stanford researchers to do it for them. The game’s inventors are encouraging this do-it-yourself experimentation, and are in talks with PLoS to allow players to publish their findings.
Hat tip to Wired Science