A just launched Carnegie Mellon/Stanford University project called EteRNA lets ordinary people contribute to actual biochemical research. It’s an astonishing achievement, all the more so because it assumes no prior knowledge of the research subject, RNA. Besides that, it’s just plain fun.

RNA is one of the three main types of molecules at the heart of all living things. Among other functions, it helps regulate the other two types of molecules, proteins and DNA.

Understanding the complex ways in which strands of RNA can fold and attach to itself can lead to the creation anti-viral medication, nanomachines, sensors, and more. Generally researchers develop hypotheses about novel RNA folds and then attempt to reproduce those folds in the lab. The EteRNA project throws the first part of that process open to the public for the first time.

Jump into the game at eterna.cmu.edu and you’ll be treated to an attractive, intuitive interface that gives you a quick lesson in RNA basics through a series of fun tutorials and puzzles, and then, once you earn enough points, throws you into the mix of players competing to design the most successful RNAs.

The best designs will undergo synthesis each week in the laboratory of the EteRNAR project’s co-leader, Rhiju Das.

The Carnegie Mellon team leader, computer scientist Adrien Treuille, specializes in opening complex computational problems to the masses. In describing his work in a video on his website, he says:

“The world is this increcibley rich and complex place with all sorts of very very interesting complicated things happening around us—skin folding, clothing folding, hair flowing in the wind…. My research attempts to capture these phenomena and simulate them in realtime on comodety hardware.”

In other words, on ordinary home and office computers. The key is to distill the natural processes to their very purest elements, ones that don’t require extraordinary processing power.

“It turns out that you can find astonishigly simple models and then allow people not only to see but also to interact with these kinds of pheonomea in real time. These kinds of simulations are used all the time in things like designing new airplane wings or for figuring out what the weather will be tomorrow, but they’re sort of locked away in these super computers. We’re tying to take those exact algorythems and put them in the hands of, like a five-year-old, and be like ‘what can you do with this?'”

Treuille and his colleagues’ work can lead to crowdsourcing on a scale and level of complexity never before possible. They are creating the tools for collaborative innovation that should have implications far beyond the current project.

Watch Treuille explain EteRNA in the video embedded in this post.