A Facebook game request can be incredibly annoying for those of us who only use the site to keep up with friends and family, but next time you are about to deny a request and are readying your ire, take a moment to check what the game is: it just might be that the game could help the UK combat ash dieback disease.
Ash die-back disease is a serious infection by the fungus Chalara fraxinea that causes leaf and branch loss.
Ash dieback is often fatal for the tree and is almost impossible to contain due to the fact that the fungus spores grow and spread on leaf litter on the wind. Scientists working with the UK government are scrambling to find innovative ways to combat the disease, focusing on certain strains of ash that appear resistant to the fungus.
To help in the fight, scientists have now created a Facebook-integrated game called Fraxinus, the Ash Dieback Game that builds on the Open Ash Dieback Project, an opensource analysis project of ash dieback disease and tree resistance.
The Fraxinus game’s description reads:
Fraxinus is a game of competitive pattern sequencing with a real world twist. Developed in collaboration between BAFTA-nominated game developers Team Cooper and the daring research scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory, the game is part of the Open Ash Die Back project. Using social media to crowdsource scientific research and try to discover the genetic cause of Ash Die Back, Fraxinus intends to change the way that scientific research is obtained.
The game has players match up sequences of colored leaves, which are used to represent strings of genetic information taken from ash trees in the UK as well as their ash dieback resistant cousins from Denmark.
It is hoped that the data this might unlock will enable scientists to radically speed up the process of engineering ash dieback resistant ash trees. That’s because the data gathered from players will help identify which individual trees should be cross-bred with each other to best create resistant ash trees without lowering the overall immunity to other diseases.
Dr. Dan MacLean, from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, came up with the idea. He told the BBC that it’s not just about ash dieback, however. They also want the game to be fun for the player.
“Primarily we designed the game to be fun and engrossing in and of itself. That’s where the basic value is for the player — how we get the most out of it is if people want to come back to it and play it with their friends. That it’s for a good cause is a bonus.”
As previously noted, ash dieback was first identified in the UK in 2012. Scientists fear that it could devastate the UK’s woodlands much as Dutch elm disease did in the 1970s, and in turn could dramatically impact a whole range of wildlife.
Scientists are currently working on several approaches to try to combat the disease. Chief among them, and as mentioned above, is invoking the resilience of “Tree 35,” a strain of ash tree bred in Denmark nearly 100 years ago that can withstand fungal infection. Replacing the UK’s native ash trees with the Tree 35 strain isn’t desirable though because it would narrow the genetic diversity of the trees and so in turn would make them susceptible to other infections.
Breeding in the particular trait that makes Tree 35 resilient is therefore the task of the day, but that requires identifying the key genetic properties that allow for this protection — and that is where the Fraxinus game is so useful because it allows scientists to effectively crowdsource data analysis in order to dramatically speed up the process of creating resilient trees.
There’s also another added bonus: top scorers in the game may have their names published in future scientific literature for their part in contributing to this analysis.
If you’d like to play the game, you can find it here. You’ll be pleased to know it requires only a minimum level of access to your personal information, too, so that’s one more reason to give it a try. Perhaps you could even consider annoying your friends with it, all of course in the name of a good cause.
Image credit: Thinkstock.