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A computer game that's also scientific research.Inigo Quintanilla Gomez/Getty Images/iStockphoto

McGill University professors Jérôme Waldispühl and Mathieu Blanchette take computer games very seriously – after all, the one they invented is trying to solve a scientific problem that many geneticists have been tackling for decades.

Together these two created Phylo, a DNA sequencing game designed to engage non-scientific users to help solve the multiple sequence alignment problem, which, if solved can help with DNA mapping and help determine the origin of certain genetic diseases.

Projects engaging both individuals and networks of non-scientific volunteers to help research and troubleshoot scientific questions fall under a category called citizen science. Also called crowd sourcing, citizen science projects – such as Phylo – are being touted by some experts as a cost-effective, innovative and helpful way to contribute to research and development (R&D) in many scientific areas.

"We wanted to tap into casual gamers, not into people with a foundation in science. That's why we make it accessible: You can just go on a website, play one game and leave. It takes 30 seconds, and it might change your mind, you had fun, and you'll reuse it," explains Dr. Waldispühl.

A visual cross between Tetris and Connect Four, the puzzle game asks the player to slide coloured blocks – representing DNA, Ribonucleic acid (RNA) and proteins – back and forth in order to align them with other similarly coloured blocks, while trying to leave as few, if any, gaps between them. By working out how to align the different blocks, the user creates a diagram of similarities and differences between different genomes – the genetic material of an organism – in different animals.

"Both humans and computers have different strengths so if we can identify aspects of the problems that we are interested in solving that are best solved by humans rather than computers, then we can take advantage of the best of both worlds," explains Dr. Blanchette.

U.S.-based InnoCentive is a company that makes its money posing scientific and business-related questions to its network of more than 300,000 "solvers."

But it is still a struggle to get many to see the value of having thousands of people from all academic disciplines weigh in on heavy, multi-million-dollar questions, says Steve Bonadio, a tech marketing specialist in Boston and, until recently, vice-president of marketing at InnoCentive.

"I think [crowd sourcing is] not where it needs to be. … We're getting there, but it's not quite there and I think the primary reason for that is one of culture," says Mr. Bonadio. He explains that many organizations have not embraced crowd sourcing, particularly in R&D, because they don't want to outsource their projects. These companies suffer from what Mr. Bonadio terms, "not invented here syndrome" and it's holding them back.

But some big companies, such as Procter & Gamble Co., are heavily promoting their use of crowd sourcing and so-called open innovation strategies, even developing the P&G company slogan of "proudly found elsewhere." These are the companies of which to take note, says Mr. Bonadio, if not just for the innovation and competitive edge then for the cost savings.

"What we are saying is that you can probably get better bang for your buck and reach more people, because, let's face it, not all the smartest people work for you," he says. "It's risky to hire 10 scientists [and all their equipment] for two million dollars. It's less risky to go out and source 10 problems and maybe you only solve six, seven, eight of them, but you're paying for success, you're not paying for failure."

"And if you can reach out at a tenth or a twentieth of the price and ask 1,000 people a question it is extremely cost effective to do so."

In Mr. Bonadio's opinion, the most economical part of using crowd sourcing as a scientific R&D tool is that the companies and researchers only pay for what they use. If they like an idea they get from this technique they only have to invest in that one idea, not the thousands that came before it.

The risk of investing in these non-traditional techniques can be argued from both sides, says Dr. Sian Bevan, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, but she insists there is a need to back these new approaches to improve science research. The result is the innovation grant started by the Canadian Cancer Society in 2012, which now has more than 90 projects in its portfolio, Dr. Bevan says. There's great benefit to breaking with traditional methods and seeking ideas from outliers, she adds.

"We wanted to create a program that really facilitated and rewarded scientists who were proposing out-of-the-box ideas, creative thinking, creative problem-solving to address the question of cancer research," says Dr. Bevan, "but address it in a different way that probably wouldn't be funded through more traditional funding mechanisms."

Cancer Research UK recently launched its citizen science project, Cell Slider, in the form of a mobile app, asking users to identify cancer cells in blood sample images with the hopes of condensing years of research into months.

Dr. Bevan and her team are watching these types of projects closely to see the results and how it could help scientists mine through the vast amount of research already acquired.

"One of the biggest challenges that has evolved is how do we deal with this data? How do we analyze it effectively? What that project is doing is really engaging the public to help with that global problem of all of this data," she adds. "We need to make sure we understand it all and figure out what it's actually telling us."

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