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Health, Science & Tech

CMU Researcher Combines Science, Online Gaming

You don’t need a PhD, lab coat or test tubes to do science anymore. In fact, those might just get in the way. 

An online video game developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Stanford University allows users to design molecules out of RNA, which are then synthesized in a laboratory for analysis.

RNA, more properly known as ribonucleic acid, is key in decoding and expressing genes and is considered one of the building blocks of life.

Designers say by using gamers, the project it avoids some of the common misrepresentations creeping into research.

“[The game] has allowed the community to make some really startling scientific advancements in understanding how RNAs work and their role inside the body, and how we could use them to create next generation drugs,” said Adrien Treuille, assistant professor of computer science and robotics at CMU.

Though the game requires a certain degree of scientific knowledge, Treuille said he doesn’t expect users to know everything about RNA. The puzzles at the start of the game are the easiest, but as a player advances farther into the game, it gets more challenging. As the game advances, it allows users to “contribute in a more direct way” by having them create more intricate RNA designs, according to Treuille, who created the game with Stanford professor Rhiju Das.

There are currently more than 80,000 registered players.

“We can find people all across the world who have really unique abilities and organize them in order to solve important and exciting societal and scientific problems,” Treuille said.

EteRNA is also more transparent than research done in private laboratories, Treuille said. Life sciences research has been plagued by “cherry-picking,” which is when a researcher adjusts scientific hypotheses to match the results of the experiment.

With EteRNA, cherry-picking isn’t possible.  

“If you look at the way the game is designed, we have a bunch of people who are putting forth hypotheses and conducting experiments,” Treuille said, “and they are doing so remotely and completely in the light of day of tens of thousands of other people.”

Treuille said he wants to expand the game into other areas of scientific research in the near future.

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