Biochemistry is one field where the gamification trend is actually amazing its community and allowing real-world discovery. Scientists and players have used these games to discover how human cells work at their core structure, and how we might build our own to better fight disease like cancer and HIV. Like its DNA predecessor, FoldIt, EteRNA challenges you with the task of arranging molecules to design the most complex RNA strand. Over at Wired is the story of how the game was created, RNA’s unlikely newest, best researches, and how the journalist addicted himself to creating working RNA.
The game’s elite players compete for a unique and wondrous prize: the chance to have RNA designs of their own making brought to life. Every two weeks, four to 16 player-designed molecules are picked to be synthesized in an RNA lab at Stanford. “It’s pretty incredible to imagine that somewhere there’s a piece of RNA that I designed that never existed anywhere in nature before,” says Robert Rogoyski, a New York City patent attorney who has had 14 of his EteRNA designs selected for synthesis. “It could encode a protein that no one has ever seen, something that’s important in the discovery of the next blockbuster glaucoma or cancer drug. Or it could be the cause of the zombie apocalypse.”
Aside from the ferry-service type, there is also something called noncoding RNA, which among other things controls the expression of genes, amplifying or quieting their signals. Learning how this noncoding RNA works its magic will be a key to treating diseases caused by defective genes, as well as to understanding how life evolved.
“The pattern recognition stuff, OK, I knew people were going to be good at that from the experience we had with Foldit,” he says. “What I didn’t know was how they were going to interpret and use the data. But if you look at what they’re doing, it’s much better work than some of the best graduate-level scientists. What they’re doing, it’s really beautiful.”
Afterall, large-scale inductive experiments promise abounding, diverse results and beautiful algorithms, but we’re still unclear what problems this flood of new RNA is capable of solving. New RNA could also mean overemphasized genes and diseases. Is playing God OK if we’re also playing?