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Nanocrafter – the citizen science DNA game

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As regular readers of the blog can attest, I kind of love the new wave of games that allow regular folks to contribute to some pretty cool science, purely by participating in the game.

I’ve written about a few of these games on the blog before, with Phylo produced by McGill in a bid to increase the understanding of genetic research.  Eyewire is a similar effort, this time produced by MIT, that aims to further understanding of neuroscience.

EteRNAis a game that explores the folding patterns of RNA, whilstNOVAis tackling a similar issue, but with the hope that it will get youngsters involved.

Charities have also got involved. Reverse the Odds is a game created by Cancer Research UK to help with the fight against the disease.

It’s pretty cool.  The latest game of this ilk is called Nanocrafter, which has been created by researchers at the University of Washington to help further understanding of synthetic biology.

The project has immediate credibility because the team behind Nanocrafter also created the distributed computing project FoldIt.

They are, however, taking a fresh approach with the creation of Nanocrafter.

“Most citizen science games are designed to gather data for a specific research question. Players may need to [be] good at pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, or other cognitive skills. Our focus at Nanocrafter is different,” the project team say. “The project isn’t intended to address any existing research. Rather, we are interested in developing a user community that is familiar enough with the principles and parameters of synthetic biology to generate new ideas, identify new questions and create their own solutions.”

What is synthetic biology?

Well, it’s applying engineering principles to biology.  It utilizes techniques from a range of disciplines to help create new biological devices and to better understand biological systems.

Synthetic biologists use things such as RNA, DNA and protein in the building of their things, which can then be inserted into a bacteria or to refine drug synthesis.

It’s an interesting field because the composites aren’t restricted to the uses their molecules were originally designed for.  For instance, DNA can be used as a biosensor or even to store data.

Suffice to say though, these tasks are pretty complex stuff, so Nanocrafter starts users off on a much simpler basis.

Players are taught about DNA biochemistry and how they can manipulate the reaction of DNA.  This knowledge can then be used by players to create their own structures.

The game is structured like many other puzzle games on the market.  Players organize the pieces to cause specific reactions, with these reactions mimicking the real behavior of DNA.

“Once users master the principles, they can try our biweekly challenges. Challenges might replicate existing research or be a problem the Nanocrafter team thought up,” the researchers explain. “While replicating published data is always useful, it is when users create their own solutions that we start to see really interesting and exciting stuff.  If we can demonstrate that player submissions are theoretically sound, we can present them to scientists to try in their labs.”

Although the community has already reached over 1,000 users, this is relatively small compared to some of the games mentioned earlier, so there is a concerted effort by the project team to expand the user base.

Check out the video below, and if DNA is something you’re interested in (or want to learn more about), then Nanocrafter could be the game for you.

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