Britain’s estimated 80 million ash trees are under threat, with scientists fearing that the Chalara fungus – known ash ash die back disease – could prove as deadly to the UK’s woodlands as Dutch elm disease was in the 1970s, killing millions of trees. In Denmark, the impact of ash die back was devastating, with between 60 and 90 per cent of all its ash trees being lost.
But there is hope… In the unexpected form of a Facebook game. Researchers sequenced the DNA from many infected trees and re-assembled them as closely as possible so they can identify variations that determine how susceptible the trees are to this disease. The human brain is uniquely adept at seeing patterns more quickly and adeptly than computers, and it’s that ability that the developers of Fraxinus (from the ash tree’s Latin name, Fraxinus Excelsior) are harnessing. The hope is that by identifying those patters through gameplay, players will provide potentially vital clues as to how the disease works on a genetic level.
“Every organism, whether human, tree of fungus has a genome virtually identical to the rest of the species but with tiny variations,” the game’s introductory screen explains. Players are challenged to manipulate and match up sequences of coloured leaves representing strings of genetic information from ash trees (both vulnerable ones from the UK and resistant strains taken from Denmark) and the Chalara fungus. Scientists will then look to use that data to cross-breed trees resistant to the disease.
Matching sequences closely earns high scores, and lets players claim patterns for their collection. However, these patterns can be stolen from under their noses by other players who use the same pattern to achieve a higher score. The competitive element adds to the addictiveness of the game and keeps players engaged for longer in order to build up and maintain their collections. The advantage for the database is that each pattern theft also serves to make the data even more accurate.
The game was envisaged by Dr Dan MacLean, head of bioinformatics at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norfolk and designed by Bafta-nominated game developers Team Cooper. The unique challenge, say the developers, was to design a game that was engaging and addictive in its own right, but also managed to produce valid scientific results. These results are now being gathered and will be published as an open source supply for scientific research.
Dr MacLean told BBC News: ‘how we get the most out of it is if people want to come back to it and play it with their friends. That it’s for a good cause is a bonus.’
Apart from the lovely feeling of helping to save millions of trees, those who top the game’s leaderboard will actually be credited on articles as having helped with the research. Lead Developer for Team Cooper Russell Stearman said that it was a unique move for players to both contribute meaningful data to the Open Ash Die Back Project and be officially recognised in scientific papers.
Whiling away the hours on Facebook might not be everyone’s idea of advancing science and protecting the environment, but citizen science projects have used gamification to tap into the power of crowds with great success. The scientists behind this project believe that crowdsourcing this social media hive mentality could bring forward the production of disease-resistant trees by over 40 years, which is certainly an impressive claim. But what are the wider implications for science, and does this mean that social media gaming is coming of age? Let us know what you think!