September 2011

Biotic games: playing with living organisms

Riedel-Kruse designed three types of games inspired by classic video games. The results of the design efforts are reported in the 10th-anniversary issue of Lab on a Chip, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The first set of games uses single-celled organisms that lack a brain and the capacity to feel pain. Higher-level organisms are not being used, Riedel-Kruse emphasizes, as “safety and bioethical issues were considered in the design of the games.”

Examples of scientific crowdsourcing for fun

Other scientists have designed Internet-based video games to utilize the collective power of many people working on one problem. In the gaming world, this is referred to as crowdsourcing or citizen science, in which a task is delegated to a group of individuals with one common goal.

Vijay Pande at Stanford University created a protein-folding game (folding@home) that is run on the world’s largest supercomputer to generate new ideas about how proteins fold.

In addition, EteRNA, a ribonucleic acid folding game, allows the public to create new RNA molecular structures. The players are scored based on known chemical properties of the RNA structure. The highest-scoring RNA molecules are tested in the laboratory. EteRNA was developed as a collaboration between the Carnegie Mellon University and the Bio-X.Game Center, an interdisciplinary research center at Stanford University.

The organism of choice was the paramecium, which is a ciliated single-celled organism that swims in a run-and-tumble motion and can be directed to move in a guided direction through both electrical and chemical signals. Paramecia can be prompted to change directions, but they move in a random path, which makes the games challenging.

In a game inspired by the classic arcade game Pac-Man, which Riedel-Kruse’s team has dubbed PAC-mecium, paramecia are placed in a square fluid chamber that has electrodes along each side. The player controls the swarm by applying electric fields along two axes with a hand-held controller. The motion of the paramecia is recorded with a webcam and displayed on a computer screen. Points are scored by directing the paramecia to gobble up virtual yeast food shown on the computer screen. However, players have to help the paramecia avoid hungry virtual zebrafish larvae that move across the screen.

The second class of games involves risk and logic. PolymerRace is inspired by horse racing, in which gamblers make bets on the order that horse-jockey pairings will reach the finish line. In the biotic version, the horse-jockey pairs are small DNA oligonucleotides, or primers, that bind with a range of affinities to DNA during a polymerase chain reaction, a common molecular technique used to replicate DNA sequences.

Players watch in real time the amplification of DNA and with each cycle obtain new information about the order and reaction efficiencies of the primer pairs. In each subsequent cycle, players make more bets; thus, the strategy is to balance risky, limited-information bets with secure, logic-driven bets.

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