This week, Stanford launches a new version of Eterna, an online computer game that allows thousands of players to design useful molecules. The game event, called OpenCRISPR, challenges Eterna players to build an RNA molecule that can switch on and off the widely vaunted gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9.
CRISPR is a fast way to edit the genomes of humans and other organisms. But despite a reputation for precision, researchers still don't completely understand how CRISPR behaves once it's operating inside living cells.
CRISPR figured prominently in the editing of human embryos that stoked debate this summer, although the project had an unexpected twist. Researchers cut out a defective gene from one-cell human embryos using CRISPR. The defective gene came from the paternal/sperm side of the genome. But even though the researchers then provided a healthy gene to replace the missing gene, the one-cell embryos refused the gene on offer and instead replaced the empty spot with a gene from the mother's genome, startling the research team.
In short, it makes sense to shut off the CRISPR editor once its primary work is done. But so far, efforts to design such a switch haven't yielded anything that works properly
Enter an online community of video game players who are expert at designing RNA molecules that can do amazing things.
As reported in a Stanford Medicine news release:
Anyone can play the Eterna RNA-design game. 'All you need is a good internet connection, the interest and the time,' said Howard Chang, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology and director of the Center for Personal Dynamic Regulomes at Stanford...
'Great ideas can come from anywhere, so this is also an experiment in the democratization of science,' Chang said. 'A lot of people have hidden talents that they don't even know about. This could be their calling. Maybe there's somebody out there who is a security guard and a fantastic RNA biochemist, and they don't even know it.'
Rhiju Das, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and principal investigator for Eterna, says the new challenge will be pretty easy even for new players as long as they can progress through the game to the CRISPR-switch-design level.
If you want to try an online puzzle game with real life biomedical applications, it's a great time to start.
Previously: Playing to win: Gamers will compete to save live, Countdown to Big Data in Biomedicine: How gamers have advanced the RNA field and A step closer to gene therapy for sickle cell disease
Thumbnail photo by Charlie Wilkes