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From Pac-Man to Pac-mecium and beyond

Caren B. Les, caren.les@photonics.com

Someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Internet users may be able to immerse themselves in biology-based action video games that double as research experiments. While having fun and escaping the rigors of science, these players-as-crowd-source could make substantial contributions to biological discovery.

In a laboratory at Stanford University in California, physicist Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse and his colleagues have developed video games to help people experience in a playful way – and in real time – the behavior of primitive life forms such as paramecia and single-cell colonies. Unlike typical video games, these “biotic games” engage living creatures – albeit at the microscopic level – and could provide insight into their form and function for medical and educational applications.


Inspired by the classic Pac-Man game, this image represents an artistic interpretation of a biology-based video game. In the middle is a paramecium. The maze in the background symbolizes a 3-D microfluidic chip. In the future, microfluidic chips are likely to be of similar significance to biotechnology as microelectronic chips are now to computer technology, according to researcher Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse. He expects that microfluidic chip technology will enable many new biotic games in the long run. Courtesy of Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse and Alice Chung.


For example, in their game Pac-mecium, which is based on the popular 1980s’ arcade game Pac-Man, players guide paramecia to forage for virtual yeast while trying to escape preying zebra fish larvae. The scenario involves paramecia roaming freely in a small fluid chamber while a camera sends live images to a video screen with the “game board” superimposed on the image of the creatures. A microprocessor tracks movements and keeps score. Players use a controller to manipulate the creatures. In Pac-mecium, the polarity of a mild electrical field applied across the fluid chamber is controlled, influencing the paramecia’s movement.


Graduate student Suhas Kumar and research associate Alice Chung play a biogame on a laptop. Courtesy of L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News Service.


Among eight other biotic games developed for recreation and exploration at the microscopic level are Biotic Pinball, Pond Pong and Ciliaball – the last named for the tiny hairs, or cilia, used by the paramecia for navigation. In Ciliaball, players guide the paramecia to kick a virtual soccer ball into one of two goal nets. In Biotic Pinball and in Pond Pong, based on the classic video game Pong, players release chemicals from micro-needles, using micromanipulators to influence the movement of the paramecia.

If you like horse racing, PolymerRace may be the game for you. The molecular-level game is based on polymerase chain reaction, a commonly used automated process that enables the production of millions of copies of an organism’s DNA in as little as two hours. Players can place bets on which one of several simultaneous reactions will run the fastest – as with horse racing, elements of logic and chance are involved.


Could living organisms be the next new wave in video games? A game player uses a laptop computer to change the polarity of an electrical field applied to a fluid chamber where paramecia swim about in response to the change. A small white camera resting above the chamber transmits the images of the paramecia as they are manipulated in games such as Pac-mecium. Courtesy of L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News Service.


According to the researchers, players have asked what paramecia might feel, if anything, as they are controlled in these games. They believe that these types of questions have great value and that biotic games could raise people’s levels of awareness in areas such as biotechnology and bioethics.

The researchers note that none of the molecules, single-cell organisms or single-cell colonies has the capacity to feel pain.


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