I first heard of “crowd sourcing” when I interviewed Stanford biochemist Rhiju Das, PhD, about a new, open-to-all comers online video game called EteRNA. Since then I’ve probably come across the term in print close to a dozen times. An article today in the New York Times by John Markoff describes the game, which launches tomorrow, in detail. (My explanation is here.)
There’s nothing democratic about science. No matter how many people think “X,” if a single scientist can prove that “not X but Y,” the field will yield, eventually, to the new paradigm.
But that’s not to say science has to be top-down. With assistance from the Internet, Das, his Carnegie Mellon collaborator Adrien Treuille, PhD, and their colleagues have created EteRNA, which lets anybody take a crack at (and score points for) tailoring RNA molecules to fit the dictates of biochemists with a burning urge to figure out how RNA – once considered kind of a dumb butler to DNA, but newly anointed as perhaps the hottest athlete in the cellular stadium – manages to fold and refold into the shapes that let it regulate practically every process in every living cell and many a virus.
Maybe the most amazing thing about EteRNA is that “winning” RNA conformations are fed directly into Das’s Stanford lab, which can rapidly generate real molecules to match the virtual ones, test their actual structures against the that guide RNA folding.
This approach is not unprecedented. Every time you prove you’re a human and not a “bot” by using your keyboard to retype those squiggly letters that appear onscreen during a registration routine, you’re doing something computers can’t do. In the aggregate, although they may not realize it, millions of people are helping to transcribe real documents that are unreadable by computers into digitally available formats.
EteRNA takes it to the next level: not just solving a test, but invention.