A Facebook game uses crowdsourcing to analyse genome data collected by scientists to save dying trees in the UK.
Ash trees in the UK are in trouble. Scientists believe that the trees have a genetic susceptibility to a type of fungus called Chalara fraxinea that kills the leaves and crowns, and eventually the tree. However, some trees seem to be immune, and if the scientists could discover why and how, perhaps they could save the rest of the trees.
However, in order to do so, they need to analyse the genetic code of both the trees and the fungus — a Herculean task involving around 60 million nucleotides — the genome's sequence of building blocks or "letters" — for the fungus, and around 1 billion for the trees.
Although this could be accomplished with computers, it takes a lot of power, and human expertise would still be required.
Cue Fraxinus, a Facebook game that allows human non-specialists to help with data analysis, developed by the Sainsbury Laboratory. It consists of chains of coloured, leaf-shaped "letters" that represent the nucleotides of both the trees and the fungus. Each "pattern", or level, shows a sequence at the top of the screen, and below it sequences that need to be matched to it, generated by the Genome Analysis Centre, the Genepool at the University of Edinburgh and the Sainsbury Laboratory for research into ash dieback led by the John Innes Centre. By removing letters, creating gaps and sliding the sequences to the left or right, the player's aim is to achieve as high a score as possible.
By sorting this information into genetic sequences, players can help the scientists find genetic variations that may give clues to the origin of the genetic weakness, and how the scientists could breed an ash that's naturally resistant to Chalara fraxinea.
There's also a competitive element to the game to help get higher (more accurate) results: the player with the highest score on any given pattern can "claim" that pattern, but they only get to hold onto it for as long as they maintain the high score.
"Each play of the game will contribute a small but useful analysis," said Dr Dan MacLean from the Sainsbury Laboratory, who conceived the idea. "The more people who play it, the more accurate the results will be for us, and the quicker we can generate the information needed to help our woodlands recover from the current epidemic."
Top scorers in the game will also have their names included in public databases and publications in recognition of their help.
The game is free to play, and anyone with a Facebook account can join in. Head on over to Facebook to play.