Video Gamers Help Solve Disease

The collective intelligence of thousands of video game players is helping researchers understand the regulation of more than 500 different disease genes.

Dec 20, 2011
Jef Akst


Earlier this year, a protein-folding game called Foldit made headlines when its developers announced a group of players had solved the structure of a protein that has stumped scientists for more than 10 years. Now, another science-inspired “game” is making waves in the community—one that could help decipher the genetic basis of dozens of diseases.

The game, called Phylo, was developed by Jérôme Waldispuhl of the McGill School of Computer Science and collaborator Mathieu Blanchette. Its 17,000 registered users log on to arrange sequences of colored blocks that represent the nucleotides of DNA. "There's a lot of excitement in the idea of playing a game and contributing to science at the same time," Blanchette said in a press release. "It's guilt-free playing; now you can tell yourself it's not just wasted time."

Last week, the researchers announced the results of a year’s worth of gameplay—more than 350,000 solutions to alignment sequence problems that inform the regulation of 521 genes involved in various diseases. The flood of sequence data could help researchers better understand how those genes work to cause disease, and even provide new candidate drug targets.

“There are some calculations that the human brain does more efficiently than any computer can. Recognizing and sorting visual patterns fall in that category,” Waldispuhl said in the release. “Computers are best at handling large amounts of messy data, but where we require high accuracy, we need humans.”