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Carnegie Mellon, Stanford Land $1M for RNA Design Crowdsourcing Game

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University are using a $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation to expand a program that uses online crowdsourcing to create new RNA designs that are later tested in labs.

Carnegie Mellon said today that the funding will help researchers expand their capability to synthesize thousands of molecules developed each month by gamers playing the EteRNA game, whereas before they could evaluate only about 32 molecules per month.

"EteRNA was designed to test the interplay between high-throughput experimental science and crowd-sourcing," said Adrien Treuille, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon and one of the project leaders, said in a statement.

"What we've seen emerge from a group of talented players is a dedicated community of researchers who have out-performed the best existing computer models for RNA design."

Keck said that the game has already engaged more than 30,000 "citizen scientists" and that it has identified a number of people, "some without formal science training, who display a strong aptitude for RNA design and are generating important scientific insights."

The expanded test will enable players to respond to weekly challenges as they did before, but also to test their own design hypotheses. These designs could be used to develop RNA molecules that could be applied in a range of ways, such as sensors for RNAs expressed by viruses or cancer cells, as switches for turning genes on and off, and in RNA-based computer circuits.

The partners also are creating a pipeline that would enable non-expert players to turn their discoveries into published papers.

Connected to the new funding, EteRNA also is creating an advisory board of scientists to provide guidance for the project that includes Stanford biochemists Paul Berg and Patrick Brown and University of Washington biochemist David Baker.