General Science / Life Sciences


Play a Game, Change the World

What if your students could create a molecular machine that might one day help save someone’s life—just by playing a game? Well, with the help of NOVA’s new RNA Lab, they actually can. The RNA Lab is an extension of a game called Eterna, which enables players to help scientists understand an important family of biomolecules called RNAs. Here’s how it works.

Scientists have known about RNA for decades, but until recently thought it was little more than a messenger between DNA and proteins. Today, the science community is beginning to understand how central RNA is to the origin of life, evolution, and the cellular machinery that keeps us alive. Furthermore, RNA medicine may be our best hope for treating currently incurable diseases.

NOVA’s RNA Lab gives teachers and students an engaging way to explore important concepts in life sciences and engineering. By playing the NOVA version of Eterna, and by watching a series of animated videos, students discover that molecular RNA “machines” carry out a wide variety of essential functions in the human body, from producing proteins to fighting viruses. Learners will go on a journey through billions of years of evolutionary history to see how RNA may have played a pivotal role in helping life to form on Earth. And they’ll develop their problem-solving skills as they’re coached through a series of RNA folding puzzles to become master molecular engineers.

Okay, RNA is important. So what’s the problem? And how in the world can online gamers help solve it?

It’s true that some RNAs are well understood, such as messenger RNAs that carry the genetic code to make proteins. But others are long strands that fold up into elaborate shapes, and little is known about how these shapes form. That’s a big problem, because the precise shape into which an RNA molecule folds determines its function. One day, scientists hope to create RNA machines that could become the basis of lifesaving therapies. But to do this, they need to understand exactly how a given strand of RNA will fold in three dimensions.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, it turns out that humans––if you gather enough of them––are better than computers at predicting the patterns that guide RNA folding. No computer algorithm has yet been written that can do the job more effectively than the human mind. To take advantage of these distinctly human skills, computer scientists Adrien Treuille and Jeehyung Lee from Carnegie Mellon University teamed up with biophysicist Rhiju Das at Stanford to create the Eterna game that allows anyone––not just experts––to find these RNA folding patterns.

Transfer RNAs (tRNAs) carry protein building blocks to a cell's protein assembly machines.

As a postdoc, Treuille founded the team that built the protein folding game Foldit that lets untrained amateurs speed up biochemical research by solving fun visual puzzles. Today, the Foldit player community has logged more than a million hours helping scientists understand how proteins fold into the intricate shapes that allow them to perform so many functions essential to life.

Eterna goes a step further than Foldit. Eterna players are challenged to design molecules online, but also, they compete with each other to have their RNA designs created in the laboratory. Each week, players vote for their favorite player-originated designs. By synthesizing the winning RNAs, scientists can see if they fold as predicted to form biologically active molecules. The very best molecules will become the basis of a molecular toolkit to explore possible RNA-based therapies.

An Eterna puzzle from the NOVA RNA Lab.

So, how can your students compete to have their RNA designs made and tested by scientists?

1) Learn about RNAs and how to design them by playing Eterna in the NOVA RNA Lab.

2) After they “graduate,” keep playing on the Eterna website––the points they earn in the NOVA RNA Lab (a total of 5000) will be transferred with them.

3) Once on Eterna, earn 5000 more points and gain entry into the Eterna Lab, where the worldwide Eterna community votes for the best RNA designs.

4) Winning RNA designs will be made and tested by scientists to see if they fold as predicted.

Solving the problem of RNA folding really can change the world. Armed with new insights from Eterna players, biomedical researchers hope to design new therapies that have the potential to benefit millions. Could one of your student’s RNA designs be at the heart of one of these ground-breaking therapies? There’s only one way to find out…



The NOVA RNA Lab Educators Guide

The Eterna website

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Kathy Neal

    Kathy is lead producer for NOVA Labs. Kathy started out as a molecular biologist and then moved into science communication. She now specializes in producing science, health and education-based digital content. Before NOVA, Kathy worked in London at the BBC, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. Kathy received her Ph.D. in Developmental Biology from the National Institute of Medical Research, London.