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Another good year for gamers who help scientists

Roughly 17,000 registered players of the DNA sequencing game Phylo have helped solve more than 350,000 problems since November 2010.

It's been a good year for video gamers--and not just the epic legions of Call of Duty fans enjoying Modern Warfare 3.

A few months after Foldit players helped decode the structure of a protein key to the way HIV multiplies, another group of gamers taking on DNA sequencing in the game Phylo have contributed more than 350,000 solutions, the game's designers at McGill University report.

In Phylo, players solve pattern-matching puzzles that represent DNA sequences, but don't have to know anything about DNA sequencing to play. McGill University

When University of Washington researchers unveiled Foldit in 2008, it wasn't clear whether the protein-folding game would be a one hit wonder. But one-year-old Phylo, already averaging 1,000 eureka moments a day, is proving there's room for more than one puzzles-for-science game.

"Phylo has contributed to improving our understanding of the regulation of 521 genes involved in a variety of diseases," says co-creator Jerome Waldispuhl in McGill's news release. "It also confirms that difficult computational problems can be embedded in a casual game that can easily be played by people without any scientific training. It's a synergy of humans and machines that helps to solve one of the most fundamental biological problems."

For complex scientific processes such as DNA sequencing and protein folding, the numbers of variations and micro problems can be overwhelming--if not impossible--for a select number of experts to tackle. (The human genome, for instance, consists of some 3 billion base pairs.)

It turns out that massively played games can harness the analytical skills of a large number of human brains to solve at least some of these mysteries.

Phylo currently boasts 17,000 registered users. The idea is to align the sequences of RNA, DNA, or proteins to identify regions that are similar and, by extension, learn such details as evolutionary origins and mutation events. With this data, biologists have a shot at tracing the sources of genetic diseases.

Phylo creators released the first-year results last week, alongside an improved version of the game for tablets. Foldit, Phylo, and another RNA game called EteRNA out of Carnegie Mellon and Stanford--with roughly 100,000 players between them--could well be the pioneers in a future pack of games that help solve a wide range of scientific problems.

"There's a lot of excitement in the idea of playing a game and contributing to science at the same time," says computer science assistant professor and Phylo co-creator Mathieu Blanchette in the school release. "It's guilt-free playing; now you can tell yourself it's not just wasted time."