The Washington Post

An online game with real-world implications: Cracking RNA’s code

Face it: Your daily routine probably doesn’t offer you many chances to dabble in molecular engineering. RNA Lab, a new online game, can change that.

For those who don’t remember Bio 101, RNA is a single-stranded molecule vital to protein synthesis; it also can help switch genes on and off and store genetic information.

RNA works by folding into different shapes: Some bind to DNA, some cut up other pieces of RNA and some bond pieces of protein, the game’s video introduction explains.

“RNA’s shape determines its function,” it notes. “If we could predict exactly what shape any RNA sequence will fold into, we could harness RNA’s power.” We could, for example, design an RNA molecule that turns off cancer-causing genes, the video explains. The problem is that there are so many possible RNA shapes, scientists have been unable to identify them all. Computer simulations haven’t worked — computers aren’t ideal for deciphering visual puzzles — so scientists have turned to game players for help.

In RNA Lab — presented by Nova Labs, an offshoot of the PBS science series — players manipulate and design strands to help “crack the RNA code.” The game is engaging, and it’s easy to lose track of time as you solve puzzles and learn the basic rules of RNA design. Those who prove particularly adept at solving the puzzles can move on to another game, EteRNA. There, they may be invited to join an elite group creating their own RNA combinations and competing with others to have their work created in a lab. Then end result might be RNA capable of destroying the HIV virus or defeating cancer.

At long last, an online game that might really help you get into college — or beyond.

In RNA Lab, players manipulate and design strands online. (EteRNA)

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.

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