Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine are taking scientific gaming to the next level by challenging non-scientific video game players to develop a better test for TB through a web-based video game.

Biochemist at Stanford, Dr Rhiju Das, and his team launched the OpenTB challenge on a new version of online game Eterna Medicine, to challenges players to build molecules of ribonucleic acid (RNA) with increasingly difficult-to-design shapes.

Eterna says since it launched the first version of the video game, the players have become more and more expert in designing complex RNA molecules. An earlier version of the Eterna game had 150,000 players.

The new goal is to design a molecule of RNA that can respond to three kinds of TB-related genetic material in a blood sample and then change shape and glow brightly when levels are high enough to indicate that a TB infection is active. All that players need to know about RNA engineering is encoded in the rules of the game.

The players will receive quick feedback on the biological function of their designs and if successful, a subset of 10 to 20 molecules will be tested to see which work best in a real stick-test.

“The players themselves are going to be the inventors. Any molecule that a top player can make in the game, we will test it in the laboratory,” said Dr Das.

OpenTB is the latest in a cascade of crowdsourcing research efforts based on the idea that science is a game that almost anyone can play. According to the Wall Street Journal, 1.2 million people in 140 countries are playing research games online that tackle quantum physics, analyse protein structures, test breast-cancer tumours or investigate genetic diseases.

“We cannot efficiently find solutions to this puzzle with a computer alone. We are at the mercy of our players to give us designs that we can test,” concluded Dr Das.

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