Researchers challenge video game players to design CRISPR switch

Researchers say an on/off switch for CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing tool derived from bacteria, would help avoid mistaken changes to DNA and allow for control similar to the scheduling of medication.

By Amy Wallace

Aug. 30 (UPI) -- Stanford University researchers have launched a challenge for Eterna computer game players to design an on/off switch for the CRISPR gene-editing tool.

CRISPR/Cas9, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic regions, is a gene-editing tool derived from bacteria.


The challenge to design an on/off switch for CRISPR is the newest challenge from Eterna, a game portal that allows players to design virtual RNA structures.

CRISPR/Cas9 could have unexpected effects inside living cells, researchers say, so it is necessary to have a CRISPR-controlling molecule to act as an on/off switch, activating and deactivating CRISPR-influenced genes on a schedule to mimic the way people schedule taking medication.

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"Great ideas can come from anywhere, so this is also an experiment in the democratization of science," Dr. Howard Chang, professor of dermatology and director of the Center for Personal Dynamic Regulomes at Stanford, said in a press release.

"A lot of people have hidden talents that they don't even know about. This could be their calling. Maybe there's somebody out there who is a security guard and a fantastic RNA biochemist, and they don't even know it."

The new challenge, called OpenCRISPR, has players design a guide RNA molecule that leads CRISPR to the right sequence of DNA for editing or binding. Eterna players must come up with an RNA molecule that can be recognized by the CRISPR-associated enzyme, recruit biochemical activity to the targeted gene, and be controlled by a small-molecule drug, so there needs to be a binding pocket for the small molecule.


"That's partially why we want as many diverse solutions as possible for the Greenleaf and Chang labs to test, even in this pilot round," Rhiju Das, an associate professor of biochemistry, said. "We're hoping for 10,000 to 100,000 players to contribute 10 solutions each. If we get that many, we'll indeed work to get that many synthesized and tested."

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