Players of the online puzzle game Phylo will help researchers understand the origin of genetic disease.
Video games might make some of us fat and depressed, but Canadian researchers are hoping gamers will find an online puzzle challenge addictive enough to help them figure out the origins of genetic diseases.
The game, called Phylo, works by helping researchers identify sections of DNA that are similar across species and contribute to traits such as blue eyes -- or medical conditions such as heart disease. By pinpointing these regions, scientists hope to trace the source of certain genetic diseases.
It turns out that humans are much better than computers at recognizing these types of patterns. Lead researcher Jerome Waldispuhl and his colleagues at McGill University built Phylo to capitalize on that fact.
They aren't the first scientists to harness idle people and their pattern-recognition prowess to achieve research goals. There's the University of Washington's protein folding game Foldit, for example. There's also Galaxy Zoo, which tasks users to classify galaxies according to shape. (A spin-off called Moon Zoo focuses on lunar craters.)
In Phylo, gamers are tasked to align rows of colored blocks that represent the four letters of the genetic code (A, C, G, T) from two organisms. Perfect alignment is usually not possible. Instead, gamers are given a time limit to come up with the best match. That pairing will likely include mismatches and gaps -- which serve as the source of potential genetic mutations.
"We're hoping that people will enjoy playing the game and that many participants will sign up," Waldispuhl said in a news release. "This is an opportunity for people to use their free time to contribute in an extremely important way to medical research."
To help the game spread, the team plans to integrate it with Facebook ... and steal attention from the popular game FarmVille.
More about gaming for science:
- Gamers solve protein puzzles
- How games change your brain
- Play the galactic slots with Galaxy Zoo
- Video games improve decision-making skills
- Games ease trauma -- but not just any game
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).