A new online game allows non-scientists to design molecules of RNA and then see how well the best of their virtual creations perform in a real-life lab. The game, called EteRNA, breaks down a barrier that has long kept the virtual reality of video games separate from the real world and in the process may help scientists build ever more sophisticated RNA machines, according to the game's creators. RNAs, or ribonucleic acids, have long been recognized as messengers for genetic information, but “we are just beginning to understand how powerful they are,” Adrien Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told me today. For one, scientists think RNA regulates cells, acting much like the operating system of a computer. Until recently, though, this role was overshadowed by DNA, which encodes genes and proteins and do the work of the cells.
EteRNA will help scientists understand how RNA folds, knowledge that can then be applied to how it works in viruses and cells. Eventually, RNA could even be used to build little machines and sensors. “It is an amazing substrate for nanoengineering,” Treuille, who lead the design for EteRNA, said. “It is very simple to synthesize, unlike proteins, and it folds up into these really interesting, beautiful shapes which have all sorts of nanoengineering applications.”