Game on

Puzzle fiends seek to optimize a COVID-19 vaccine

Open vaccine screen grab from The Eterna project

Developing a vaccine formula that can protect people from COVID-19 is only the first step in beating the coronavirus that causes the disease. That same vaccine also must retain its disease-prevention power during a global trek to reach the billions of people who will need it.

To create such a vaccine, Stanford biochemist Rhiju Das,, PhD, has tapped the collective minds of video-game players through a project called the OpenVaccine challenge.

For the challenge, which is hosted on an interactive gaming platform that Das co-invented called Eterna, gamers from around the world are using their puzzle-solving skills to help design an RNA structure that protects the vaccine’s potency by following a few video-game-like rules governing how the molecules fold.

Das studies how string-like RNA molecules, which encode the genetic information needed to make proteins, fold into three-dimensional shapes to carry out biological functions within a cell. RNA molecules are being investigated as potential vaccines for several diseases — including COVID-19 — although none has been approved for use in humans.

Each RNA molecule can assume many different conformations that vary in their resistance to degradation. Those conformations predicted to be the most resistant by the game’s scoring system are tested in the labs of Das and geneticist Maria Barna, PhD.

Eterna was launched 10 years ago and has more than 250,000 players. Insights from the gamers — who don’t need scientific training to play — have led to the publication of more than 20 scientific articles describing new configurations of the flexible RNA molecules.

“We’re trying to recruit — potentially — millions of people to come play a video game,” Das said in an interview for a NOVA segment about decoding COVID-19. “The solutions they are providing very well could become a medicine that is injected into billions of people.”

In the segment, during which Das was featured among a host of researchers, he discussed the urgency of COVID-19 vaccine research: “The advantage of RNA vaccines is that they are super fast to make, which is absolutely critical in the current pandemic situation.”

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Krista Conger

Krista Conger is a Senior Science Writer in the Office of Communications. Email her at

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