NARRATOR: A tiny molecule packed with a four billion year old code may hold the answers to some of biology’s biggest questions. This molecule is called RNA, and scientists are just beginning to understand all the amazing things it can do. Better yet, there’s a way that you can help solve the mystery of how RNA works––just by playing a game.
You may be familiar with RNA’s more famous cousin, DNA. DNA is a double stranded helix made of four building blocks called nucleotides. These nucleotides code for all of the genes that make fish fish, trees trees, and you you.
RNA is also made of nucleotide building blocks, but it’s a single stranded molecule. Scientists were initially fooled by RNA’s simplicity––they thought that it was little more than a messenger between DNA and proteins.
The truth is far more interesting: RNAs are versatile cellular machines that can do what both DNA and proteins do, and more. They can switch genes on and off, defend cells against attackers, alter other biomolecules, and store genetic information. Every year new RNAs are discovered, and the list of their Swiss-Army knife-like skills expands.
RNAs function by folding up into shapes. Some shapes bind to DNA, some cut up RNAs, and still others bond pieces of protein together. In each case, an RNA’s shape determines its function in a cell.
If we could predict exactly what shape any RNA sequence will fold into, we could harness RNA’s power. For example, we might design an RNA that turns off cancer-causing genes. Scientists have tried to use computers to solve this problem, but they haven’t had much luck due to the sheer number of possible combinations.
And that’s where you come in. You can do something that computers cannot: find the patterns that rule RNA design.
To take advantage of these distinctly human skills, computer scientists and biochemists teamed up to create a game called Eterna that allows anyone – not just experts – to find these patterns. The challenge of the game is to design RNAs that fold into specific shapes. The creators are counting on gamers, Sudoku solvers, artists, and other creative individuals like you to bring fresh perspectives and skills needed to crack the RNA code.
You’ll start off in NOVA’s RNA Lab, playing as an RNA engineer who must solve RNA puzzles to complete a series of challenges. Once you learn the basics there, you can join Eterna, where you’ll encounter even more challenging puzzles. If you prove yourself to be an expert player by earning 10,000 points, you can join a community of elite RNA engineers who craft real molecules designed to help solve RNA’s many mysteries. Each month, thousands of these designs are synthesized and analyzed in a lab in California. If your design is chosen, you’ll receive a score and data that will tell you well your RNA performed.
Solving the problem of RNA folding can change the world. One of your designs could help create an RNA that destroys the HIV virus; or a microscopic computer made of many RNAs that detects and defeats cancer before it spreads; or a self-replicating RNA that shows how life began; or maybe even a breakthrough that no one has even dreamed of. So what are you waiting for? This RNA is not going to fold itself.