Man versus machine…which one is the winner?  This is definitely a question for the modern world, as people have competed with current technology, namely computers.

Are there ways the computer has out-shined the human mind? Perhaps.  But I think the better question is, can computers ever catch up to our incredible brains? I don’t think so.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read an article from “Nature News” regarding  an online game called, “Phylo”, created by computational biologists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.   People who played this game were able to more accurately solve problems that computers  have had in matching DNA sequences from different organisms/diseases. And this doesn’t require a person with skills in science.  It only requires someone with visual intelligence, something a computer doesn’t have, at least not in the same way.

In this current genomic era, we are confronted by massive amounts of genomic data that we are trying to make sense of. We are trying to figure out how DNA sequences differ between multiple organisms and between diseased organisms and disease-free organisms. Like putting together a puzzle, people have created computer programs that can take multiple sequences from different sources and align them in a way that accurately compares them, pointing out the differences that indicate evolutionary change.  The problem computers have is in figuring out where to create proper alignments between many different sequences. In other words, where do the matches make the most sense across the board? Computers do a decent job with this enormous task, but are limited in accurately aligning sequences every time, especially with several sequences that may have more differences than similarities.

“Phylo” was created to help address the problems computers have in matching many sequences together. In this game, the goal is to match as many colored blocks from one string of blocks to other strings of blocks. Each string of blocks is a DNA sequence.  Each differently colored block represents a base (A, T, G or C) in our DNA.  This is essentially a game of matching colors between as many as 8 strings of blocks using a set of rules that helps gamers create the best matches.  No scientific experience is required.

The “Phylo” game has been used to help more accurately align sequences of promoter regions that control expression in 521 disease-associated genes in 44 vertebrate species.  The game has drawn over 3000 regular visitors and the gamers have been able to surpass the accuracy of traditional algorithmic Multiple Sequence Alignment (MSA) tools used by the computer in as many as 70% of the sequences.

If you have never had a chance to help out scientists in the comparative genomics field before, now is the time! Plus, it is a lot of fun.

Check out Phylo!


For more information go to:

Kawrykow, A. et al. PLoS ONE 7, e31362 (2012)

Gamers outdo computers at matching up disease genes