Massive Open Lab gets volunteers to beat computers in designing RNA

Your RNA here. The eterna interface makes it a snap to get your own custom RNA to form a specific structure.

Citizen science, the movement to draft non-specialists into areas of scientific research, doesn’t require the volunteers to put on lab coats. In at least one case, scientists turned a prickly biochemical problem into a game and found that the gamers could typically beat the best computer algorithms out there.

But all that work was done on cases where we already knew the answers, which was how we were able to measure the gamers’ success. Now some researchers have taken this approach one step further and created a hybrid project that mixes volunteers with lab-coated workers. 37,000 enthusiasts were given the chance to take on algorithms in designing new RNA molecules. And, once the gamers had a chance to vote on the best designs, the winning designs were sent to a lab, synthesized, and tested. After a few rounds of this, players were not only handily beating the computers but providing rules that went into designing the next-generation algorithm.

A consortium of researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Seoul National University put together what they called a Massive Open Laboratory. Operated through a Web portal called “eterna,” it provides a few tutorials that allow people to bring themselves up to speed on the base pairing rules that govern the structure of RNA molecules. These structures can fold up a linear RNA molecule into a catalytic form or allow it to bind other molecules and proteins. These structures are essential to basic cell functions, such as turning genes into mature messenger RNAs and then converting these messengers into proteins.

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via Ars Technica


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