Alex Birlo on April 9, 2020
A new update was released yesterday for Borderlands 3 allowing players to earn in-game currency and contribute to real-world scientific research by organizing some of the millions of DNA sequences of actual microbes – all through a simple and fun mini-game.
Sounds weird? Let’s break it down!
Let us start with a quick biology fact: only 43% of the cells in our body are of human origin, the rest belong to foreign microbes. We are half aliens; I know – weird. Naturally, this means that these foreign microbes have a big impact on our bodies’ health, so the more we know about them, the better.
Each of these microbes has its own “DNA signature” and similar microbes have similar signatures. So, the more of these microbe species we can sequence, the more we could learn about how our bodies work.
So to begin a major research effort in this filed, the “MICROSETTA” initiative has collected tens of thousands of… poop samples. Then extracted the DNA of the microbes inside and sequenced it. All that is now needed is to properly organize this data, but the problem is that computer algorithms can’t quite do it properly.
The thing is that since similar microbes have similar DNA sequences, computers make errors in organizing them because of the small differences between each DNA sequence – the algorithms cannot identify these differences properly.
So the resulting data cannot be fully used for further analysis due to all the small errors. And in order to help further the process of fixing these errors and finish organize this data, the scientists broke it into byte-sized puzzles that were implemented into this mini-game you can now play in Borderlands 3.
You will be presented with different strands of DNA each made up of individual tiles represented by 8-byte styled icons of the game’s characters. You will have to use a limited amount of blocks to push the tiles into their correct rows while matching their colors.
The tutorial also warns you that it is not always possible to align everything perfectly. But that is still extremely helpful since just by attempting these puzzles you will be identifying the errors in the computer’s analysis. This, in turn, will help scientists build a better analysis algorithm for future research.
This is one of those great little examples of how creative people can utilize opportunities given by the video game industry and help achieve innovations in science, medicine or even mental health.
Also, the fact that all the collected data – from people playing the game – is “Open-access”, everyone from the scientific community around the world can benefit from it!
Post on the official Borderlands 3 website: https://borderlands.com/en-US/news/2020-04-07-borderlands-science/