Scientists Are Harnessing the Brainpower of the Masses… with Video Games?


Who hasn’t been sucked in playing Pacman or World of Goo for hours, and then thought, “Oh man, where did the last three hours of my life go?”

A ridiculous amount of human brainpower is devoted to playing online games, and scientists have decided to capture this cognitive surplus. Scientists at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University have developed an online video game that gives players the power to fold their own RNA molecules. (Read the NY Times coverage here.)

RNA (ribonucleic acid), a cousin of DNA, is an important molecule within the cell, and scientists are discovering new functions of RNA every day. One of the creators of the game, Dr. Adrien Treuille, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, believes “There is an RNA revolution going on. The complexity of life may be due to RNA signaling.”

EteRNA is a free online game that is “played by humans, scored by nature.” Players create their own complex RNA molecules and then receive a score about the biological functions of their creations.  This game is a follow-up to Foldit, a protein folding video game, which proved that the three-dimensional pattern-matching abilities of online gamers could outperform the best protein-folding algorithms scientists could create.

These games allow humans to demonstrate that we still have the one-up on computers. Human beings provide the “computing power” by playing the game on a massive scale, but using intuition and creativity we can design new molecules that a computer algorithm would never create. When testing EteRNA before its release to the public, they found that expert gamers playing for only two weeks could design RNA solutions that would fold properly in the test tube, unlike the computer-created simulations.

Every week the best RNA designs are chosen and synthesized in the lab to test their biological value.  The game creator’s overall goal is to find new principles that will increase the understanding of how RNAs fold and lead to better RNA design. But you never know, any player could be the one to design a new RNA capable of inactivating viruses. Using our combined human brainpower, we have the opportunity to design an RNA that could change the world.




Great article. Annie, I really like your nice and clear write up on Brain Power. Learn some new things from your informative article. Love every bit of it and will be back.

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