Though it’s the world’s top infectious killer, tuberculosis is surprisingly tricky to diagnose. Scientists think that video gamers can help them create a better diagnostic test.
An online puzzle released Monday will see whether the researchers are right. Players of a Web-based game called EteRNA will try to design a sensor molecule that could potentially make diagnosing TB as easy as taking a home pregnancy test. The TB puzzle marks the launch of “EteRNA Medicine.”
The idea of rallying gamers to fight TB arose as two young Stanford University professors chatted over dinner at a conference last May. Rhiju Das, a biochemist who helped create EteRNA, told bioinformatician Purvesh Khatri about the game, which challenges nonexperts to design RNA molecules that fold into target shapes.
RNA molecules play key roles in biology and disease. Some brain disorders can be traced to problems with RNA folding. Viruses such as H1N1 flu and HIV depend on RNA elements to replicate and infect cells.
Das wants to “fight fire with fire” — that is, to disrupt the RNA involved in a disease or virus by crafting new tools that are themselves made of RNA molecules. EteRNA players learn RNA design principles with each puzzle they solve.