Eterna is a citizen science game, supporting research in basic and applied research to predict and design synthetic ribonucleic acid (RNA) structures. RNA, the extremely powerful molecule at the heart of many cellular processes, acts as the operating system of life based on how it folds into complex shapes.
RNA research has the potential to lead to breakthroughs in diagnosing and treating dangerous and wide-spread diseases. RNA research may also lead to the development of new technologies, outside of medicine, that are currently impossible through conventional means. However, scientists don’t fully understand RNA’s behavior. Creating synthetic designs to carry out a specific function and predicting how well they will perform when created, is extremely difficult - but the diverse community of Eterna players, representing a wide variety of ages, locations, and backgrounds, have tackled this challenge head on, and have done so with great success. The best players still remain better at designing synthetic RNA and solving RNA secondary structures than the best computer algorithms.
Through the abstraction of a puzzle/logic game, individuals with no biological or even scientific background are able to make meaningful contributions to areas such as fundamental biochemistry, diagnostics, therapeutics, material design, and more.
Players are asked to use RNA’s four nucleotides to design a pattern that will form into a specific shape (or shapes) under various conditions. Over time, these design challenges have become increasingly complex, and reflect a wide variety of mechanics in nature. Initially, players design in a simulated environment for studying and playing with RNA designs that use industry-standard software to predict likely RNA foldings. As they gain experience, players reach the virtual lab and a series of lab challenges. Players create molecular designs for specific biomedical and biotechnology targets. At Stanford University, a partnered wet lab manufactures and tests the designs voted on by the community and provides feedback to the players about how well each design performed. Players then as individuals, and a community, analyze results and use this information to create better designs.