Science Fellow spotlight: Adrien Treuille

Science Fellow Adrien Treuille, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon, is using gaming to advance scientific research. Through online video games, he’s harnessing the power of human logic and creativity to solve some of the most complex computational problems in biomedicine: protein folding and RNA synthesis.

Tens of thousands of people play his games, FoldIt and EteRNA - proof that heady scientific problems can be crowdsourced and that video games don’t have to be mindless fun. “We’ve crowdsourced the whole scientific method from hypothesis to experiment to results,” Treuille (pronounced “Troy”) told the audience yesterday at PopTech.

FoldIt, which can be downloaded from the Internet, launched in 2008. The challenge? Proteins are the key to life at the cellular level. But understanding how a string of amino acids, the fundamental units of a protein, fold into its final, three-dimensional structure, is an incredibly difficult problem that, until now, has taken significant time, money and computational power. FoldIt players compete to figure out which of the numerous possible protein structures possible in nature is actually the best one.

EteRNA, which launched in 2010, lets users build strands of RNA, composed of a chain of nucleotides (those As, Cs, Gs and Us you learned about in biology class) that encode genetic information. The most promising sequences are actually built in a lab at Stanford, nucleotide by nucleotide, and the results fed back to the players. “Computers don’t do as well as humans in generating RNA,” said Treuille. “Six months into the experiment, the worst human design was better than the best computer design.” The goal is to help scientists understand how RNA directs the activities going on in a cell.

“FoldIt and EteRNA teach us that people can solve complicated problems online that are at the edge of human knowledge,” he said. “And we’ve just scratched the surface.” 

Illustration: Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio

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