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.