Video games have a way of catching a player's attention, and it's no less true with science-based video games. EteRNA, a game developed in January 2011 by researchers at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University, allows players to design new RNAs, the most promising of which are then synthesized in Stanford labs, says Wired Science's Brendan Koerner. The game now has more than 38,000 registered users.
"The chance to win this reward has proven highly motivating for EteRNA's players," Koerner says, adding that "by scrutinizing their creations, learning from their triumphs and mistakes, and using their accumulated wisdom to develop new hypotheses, they aren't just building better RNA molecules; they're discovering fundamental aspects of biochemistry that no one — not even the world's top RNA researchers — knew before."
EteRNA's creators say they're surprised by how quickly amateur players have developed a knack for discerning the laws that govern RNA. Even Rhiju Das, a postdoc in the lab of the University of Washington's David Baker — which pioneered Foldit, a protein-folding game — and originally a critic of EteRNA, tells Koerner he didn't anticipate what the players could do. "The pattern recognition stuff, OK, I knew people were going to be good at that from the experience we had with Foldit," Das says. "What I didn't know was how they were going to interpret and use the data. But if you look at what they’re doing, it's much better work than some of the best graduate-level scientists. What they're doing, it's really beautiful."