Crowdsourcing to Understand the Molecules of Life

Published Oct-29-11

A crowdsourcing quest to uncover the design principles of RNA.

Carnegie Mellon University/Stanford University, United States

The Story:

Crowdsourcing to Understand the Molecules of Life RNA (ribonucleic acid) is one of life’s fundamental building blocks and a key messenger and regulator of cell functions, but there is still a great deal of information that science has yet to learn about its purpose and functions.

So biologists at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University have turned to the crowd (composed of both scientists and non scientists) to help them in their quest to find out more.

They created an online video game called EteRNA that challenges users to come up with new ways to fold RNA molecules. RNA folding in living cells is the most essential process to understanding RNA functions.

For years this molecule has been somewhat overshadowed by DNA, but in the last ten years or so its ‘power’ has been better appreciated and it is now considered a possible key to solving many ailments including HIV and genetic diseases.

Plugging the Gaps

Unlike DNA’s famous double-helix design most RNA molecules are single stranded, and they fold into intricate designs which are crucial for their performance. For decades scientists have been working on developing complex algorithms to define the hows and whys of RNA folding so they can replicate it in the lab. But there are many holes in the algorithms which it’s hoped that EteRNA will be able to plug.

Every week players are presented with a two-dimensional puzzle-solving exercise involving the four bases – adenine, guanine, uracil and cytosine - that make up RNA. The game uses state-of-the-art simulation software and players score if the molecule they’ve designed can assemble itself.

The best and most viable ones are selected by the gaming community to be synthesized by Stanford scientists. By reproducing a design in the lab scientists are able to quickly learn whether the molecule folds into the predicted shape or something close to it, or not at all.

All of which will hopefully help researchers generate hypotheses about when RNA molecules fold the way they do and why.

"We want to understand how RNA folds in a test tube and eventually in viruses and living cells," said Rhiju Das, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Stanford. "We also want to create a toolkit of basic building blocks that could be used to construct sensors, therapeutic agents and tiny machines."

Crowdsourcing to Make Scientific Progress

The games are played by everyone from lab bench scientists to project managers, stay at home mums, retirees and teenagers, and a deep knowledge of biochemistry is not necessary. You can just dive right on in. And it’s integrated with Facebook so players can post their achievements, create groups and compete against other groups.

The game is not an outreach program; it is not designed to teach people about RNA, although there are some lessons, but these are principally to help people understand RNA building rules and therefore the rules of the game.

EteRNA is tapping into the potential of the Internet to harness the creativity and collective intelligence of a collaboration of hundreds and potentially thousands of people. And in so doing is helping to build up a powerhouse of knowledge that can aid researchers in their discovery process, and potentially shave years or decades off research time.

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