By Bruce Goldman
Photo by Steve Fisch
Jackie Gu’s mom thought her daughter was just goofing off, and told her to knock it off already with the online video game she spent so much time playing last summer. Little did she know that her 14-year-old was actually advancing the progress of science.
The game, called EteRNA, taps gamers’ skills to accelerate biochemists’ understanding of DNA’s once-unsung chemical cousin, RNA. Gamers — no experience is necessary — design molecules composed of RNA, which is “the emerging superstar in the field of biochemistry,” says Rhiju Das, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Stanford.
Then comes EteRNA’s unique kicker: Das’ laboratory actually synthesizes the “winning” RNA sequences on a weekly basis, and figures out if they fold up as designed. The lab then feeds the experimental findings back to the players. “This way, there’s a chance that thousands of non-expert enthusiasts will be able to collectively solve biochemical challenges that experts can’t,” says Das. “If the molecule folds as the players think, they win — and so do we.”
Das and two Carnegie Mellon computer scientists launched the game they developed together in January. How many people have signed up?
“More than I imagined,” says Das. So far 20,000 players have logged 8,000 hours. As a result, Das’ lab is synthesizing eight designs a week.
Those hours Gu spent playing last summer, to her mother’s initial chagrin, were her work for Das as an intern. When she first started, Das gave her an online link to the game. She went on to help shape the rules guiding the player interface.
Now she’s back in school, with all the work that implies. But she still gets some time — maybe a half-hour a week or so — to play EteRNA. “It’s really easy,” she says. “The rules are definitely not as complicated as other games’. But it’s fun to make these RNAs fold the way you want them to.”