Human beings are remarkably capable animals when it comes to pattern recognition. The human ability to quickly and accurately recognize recurrent patterns is a skill that numerous citizen science projects have put to work on large, difficult data sets. Galaxy Zoo uses these skills to assist with the morphological classification of galaxies. Pattern recognition and also spatial reasoning contribute to the success of the protein folding project Foldit. Another project aims to take advantage of these human skills and, like Foldit, does so with a game.
Fraxinus is a game created by The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) to help researchers address ash dieback in the common ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior). Players attempt to match a nucleotide sequence to a reference genome to look for sites of variation. The game was designed for the social media platform Facebook and allows users to play the game as they would any other on the site. However, this game provides more than entertainment. Fraxinus also provides scientists with small pieces of data that can be aggregated to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms that protect some common ash trees while others perish.
With more than 10,000 puzzles to solve in the game there is a significant amount of work for citizen scientists, but already each of these puzzles has been examined, according to a recent report on the game. Now that each puzzle has been looked at, players will begin to “steal” patterns from one another, in an attempt to increase their game score, and at the same time they will help refine sequence patterns, which in-turn provides better quality data for researchers.
You can learn more about the background for the project, including the basic science, and Fraxinus with Dan MacLean, Bioinformatics at Sainsbury Laboratory, here.
Ashley Rose Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at North Carolina State University. Ashley studies how emerging technologies may be changing science communication. She also teaches scientific and technical writing courses as well as an introductory course on science, technology, and society. You can find Ashley on Twitter as @ashleyrkelly