The Science of Sustainability

Gaming to Understand Disease

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Line up the blocks and help cure a disease!

Yesterday I discovered an online game called Phylo. No, it isn’t about Greek pastry dough. It has more to do with phylogenetics.

Phylogenetics is the study of how living things are related to each other. It takes advantage of the fact that DNA changes slowly over time. So the more distantly related two things are, the less DNA they will share.

You can also learn which bits of DNA are important for life (or good health) by seeing which ones stay pretty constant between various animals. Since these don’t change, they are probably being used for something. And if they get changed in people who have a disease, then they may be involved in that disease.

This is what Phylo is based on. In the game, you are trying to line up the DNA sequences of various animals to figure out which DNA is important and which isn’t. This is a lot harder than it sounds.

While DNA changes slowly, we’re dealing with some pretty long spans of time since two animals shared a common ancestor (i.e. had the same DNA). This means that the DNA can start to look pretty different.

Phylo gives you sets of DNA sequences that haven’t been lined up yet and has you try to line them up manually. Apparently people are still better at this than computers!

Lining these sequences up helps scientists discover which DNA bases are important. It can also give us some basic knowledge about the evolutionary relationship of various animals.

Since DNA sequence might be a little intimidating, Phylo uses colored blocks instead. Each different colored block represents one of the four DNA bases.

In the game, you have a certain amount of time to align the sequences as best you can. You want the fewest mismatches with the fewest gaps.

The game is pretty hard but it is engaging. And you’re doing your bit for science which is always a good thing.

What would make it even better is more explanation about what I am doing and why it is important. This could make the game fun and educational. (I’d also like to see the DNA sequences I aligned but that’s probably just me.)

So give it a whirl and do your bit to help humanity. And have a little fun in the process.

Nice list of top 5 citizen scientist games (Phylo is number 1).

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Category: Biology

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.