On Facebook, people will be able to take part in one of the biggest experiments to harness computing and brain power to discover genetic variants that could help to counter ash dieback disease, they said.
The on-line game, which involves matching on-screen patterns that correlate with genetic data amassed by scientists in the field, could hasten the process of breeding trees resistant to the disease caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea from 50 years or more to a decade or less.
The game, called Fraxinus after the Latin for the ash tree Fraxinus excelsior, works as a puzzle, inviting players to score points by matching colored sequences of leaves on the screen caused by the fungus.
The disease has attacked wide areas in Britain and some of the country's few remaining ancient woodlands are in severe danger, botanists said.
Some genetic variants among the ash tree population exhibit resistance to or tolerance of the disease, they said, but tens of thousands of genes must be sifted through to find those most likely to exhibit resistance, something requiring crunching massive amounts of data with computers -- thus the crowd-sourced computer game.
"We are at quite an exciting moment," Jean Webber of Forest Research, who advised on the Fraxinus game, said. "We have the pathogen to deal with, but we have tools at our disposal that we have never had before."