Do you want an excuse to play games? Because here’s a good one: by playing an online game, you can help botanists solve the mystery of the fungus that’s killing so many ash trees.
There’s concern in the UK about a fungus called Chalara fraxinea, more commonly known as ash dieback fungus, which is killing many of the common ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior). Chalara has already killed between 60% – 90% of ash trees in Denmark, and threatens many of the UK’s 80 million ash trees, many of which are over 1,000 years old.
Enter botanist Dan MacLean and game development company Team Cooper, who have collaborated in the development of a Facebook game called Fraxinus. The game itself is a simple one, which involves matching rows of leaf shapes to get as close as possible to a given pattern – you get a set of rows for each pattern. If you can closely match a sequence to a pattern, you get to ‘claim’ the pattern, while if you get a higher score than the current claimant to a pattern, you get to steal it. Top scorers will be acknowledged in publications.
What’s complex and fascinating is the underlying science: the leaf shapes represent nucleotides, the basic molecules that make up a gene sequence. Each row of leaf shapes represents real genetic data from the ash and the fungus to find out what it is that can make some ash trees more resistant to the fungus. Each pattern theft makes the resulting data more accurate, so in this case, theft is a positive thing.
You might wonder why they’ve chosen to use an online game, rather than getting a computer to churn through the data. After all, computers are incredibly fast at crunching numbers, and given that they’ve got enormous quantities of data, you’d think that computers would be much more efficient.
But you’d be wrong. While computers are great at following algorithms, they’re less great at recognising patterns. If you want something to follow a defined set of instructions, along the lines of “if this, do that, otherwise do the other“, then a computer is your friend, but in the words of Terry Pratchett, they’re completely drawers at pattern recognition. Humans, on the other hand, have become very adept at recognising patterns: all animals have evolved this way, in order to avoid predators and find food.
So pattern recognition is one area where you can demonstrate your superiority over computers, and you can do it by playing this game. It’s a fun way to fritter some time (more time than you might plan to spend, in fact!), and gives you some idea of the difficulties involved in genetic science while you’re at it.
And you can play games and know that you’re helping science at the same time.