Eterna Citizen Science Game Turns Its Attention To CRISPR

I’ve written a number of times about the tremendous rise in citizen science game platforms that allow players to contribute to scientific research.  Arguably the most well known of these games is Stanford based Eterna.

Last year a paper highlighted how players of the game were playing an ever increasing role in scientific research.

“We see that in particular researchers in the natural sciences have collected and classified data with the help of interested volunteers. In the social sciences, there has been a focus on inviting select parts of the public to find out the effects of science on people’s everyday lives. This may for example concern environment problems and risks,” the authors say.

The game began life by asking players to help scientists understand RNA, but it has recently branched out into new fields.  For instance, last year they developed a version that aimed to further understanding of TB.

CRISPR control

The latest version sees players tasked with designing a CRISPR-controlling molecule.  The design of the challenge is to develop an RNA molecule that’s capable of acting as an on/off switch for CRISPR.  The resulting molecules will then be tested by molecular biologists.

The ability to turn off CRISPR is crucial as the editor is incredibly powerful and may have unexpected effects on the cells, so being able to turn it off is key to its safe usage.  The researchers also believe the functionality could allow CRISPR to be deployed on a kind of timer so that it can be activated and deactivated according to a schedule.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere, so this is also an experiment in the democratization of science,” the team say. “A lot of people have hidden talents that they don’t even know about. This could be their calling. Maybe there’s somebody out there who is a security guard and a fantastic RNA biochemist, and they don’t even know it.”

The aim is to get up to 100,000 players to contribute, with each player contributing around 10 solutions each.  Should that number of players participate, it gives the team a good amount of data to work with, and their initial tests will then go into refining the game further to guide future players in their designs.

Taking science local

In addition to producing some invaluable inputs into scientific research, the team also hope to enhance interest in science among the wider population.

“The Eterna game is a powerful way to engage lots and lots of people,” they say. “They’re not just passive users of information but actually involved in the process.”

As with other computer games, Eterna aims to incentivize players by allowing them to earn points, build expertise and advance to higher levels.  The best players then gain the chance to have their designs implemented in a lab environment.

Citizen science games like Eterna have proven incredibly popular.  For instance, I wrote recently about the Sea Hero Quest game developed by Deutsche Telekom to promote research into dementia.  The original mobile game has been downloaded over 3 million times, providing data equivalent to 12,000 years of lab research.

As such, the Eterna team believe that the game is as much about the sociology of science as it is about the hard science itself.

“There is a misconception of science as something that happens in an ivory tower by someone in a white coat with a long beard. And they are saying things and drawing things that nobody understands. But it’s not like that! It’s really like a puzzle that anybody can get engaged with,” they say.

You can play the game for free by clicking here, or alternatively watch the video below to learn more about it.

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