The biochemical Pac-Man

Sept. 27, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
The biochemical Pac-Man
(AUBRIE LEE/The Stanford Daily)

From Frogger to Fifa, video games have come a long way. They began as a new means to simple entertainment. Now, with more advanced graphics and complex systems, video games in Silicon Valley are educational.

Assistant bioengineering professor Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant biochemistry professor Rhiju Das Ph.D. ’05 and education professor Daniel Schwartz co-founded the Bio-X Game Center to further education and research through biotic games. Biotic games are games that require a biological process to run, and players interact and play directly with microorganisms.

Riedel-Kruse’s biotic games are based on biotechnological principles on multiple scales. His group came up with eight games classified into three broad categories: interactions with molecules, single cells or colonies of unicellular organisms.

The molecular biotic game, called “PolymerRace,” involves a lab technique called polymerase chain reactions (PCR), which generate millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. The game mirrors a horse race: the player bets on which reactions will finish fastest as the player is linked to a PCR machine that runs multiple reactions simultaneously. Like with real horse races, inside information, like bio-molecular intuition, may aid the player.

In the games involving paramecia, unicellular organisms swim in a fluid chamber. The player controls the polarity or chemical composition of the fluid chamber to manipulate where the paramecia swim. In turn, a camera sends live images to a video screen, with a game board interface superimposed on the image of the paramecia. A microprocessor tracks the movements of the paramecia and keeps score.

These games have been developed to give the player a fun and interactive way to delve into the intricacies of biological processes without committing to a formal lab experiment.

Riendel-Kruse and his team began with simple games because they wanted to see if they could design such biotic games in the first place.

“We tried to mimic some classic video game,” he said.

They created the game “PAC-mecium” to emulate PacMan. In the game, players guide paramecia to eat dots.

Other biotic games include “Biotic Pinball,” “POND PONG” and “Ciliaball,” in which paramecia use their cilia, or micro-hairs, to swim and play a game similar to soccer.

“We hope that by playing games involving biology of a scale too small to see with the naked eye, people will realize how amazing these processes are and they’ll get curious and want to know more,” he said. “But we are also thinking perhaps we could have people running real experiments as they play these games.”

Through these games, Riendel-Kruse created an environment in which normal people can contribute to solving research problems.

“The idea is that while we as humans play the game, we interact with real biological processes or material,” he said.

The games are instrumental to his ambition to educate and motivate people to learn more about biotechnology.

“We would argue that modern biotechnology will influence our life at an accelerating pace, most prominently in the personal biomedical choices that we will be faced with more and more often,” Riedel-Kruse said. “Everyone should have sufficient knowledge about the basics of biomedicine and biotechnology. Biotic games could promote that.”

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