MONTREAL, March 13 (UPI) — Swarms of online gamers have helped solve difficult biological problems and untangle a major problem in comparative genomics, Canadian researchers say.
Thousands of Internet gamers have played the online game Phylo, created to address the “multiple sequence alignment (MSA) problem,” the thorny task of aligning roughly similar sequences of DNA in genes common to many species.
A DNA sequence that is found across species suggests it has an important role in the ultimate function of that particular gene.
Researchers said that task has proven difficult to crack using computers, Nature reported Tuesday.
Although computer algorithms can do very rough alignments of sequences across species, they have proven inept at getting the answer just right, they said.
That’s where humans — in this case game players — excel, researchers said.
“Understanding when something breaks a general rule is very difficult for a computer but that is what human visual intelligence is very good at,” lead author Jerome Waldispuhl, a computational biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, said.
Waldispuhl and his colleagues created Phylo and released it online in November 2010. The aim of the game is to improve the sequence alignment of regions that control when a gene is transcribed in 521 disease-associated genes from 44 vertebrate species.
Sequences are represented by strings of blocks, each with a color corresponding to one of the four different bases that make up DNA, and players try to find the best possible match between sequences for up to eight different species at a time by shifting the sequences to the left or right one block at a time.
The gamers have produced roughly 350,000 solutions to various MSA problems, beating the accuracy of alignments from computer algorithms in roughly 70 percent of the sequences they manipulated.
“We have shown that humans’ game-playing visual talents can do some things better than a computer algorithm,” Waldispuhl said.