Borderlands Science: How a Video Game is Advancing Microbiome Research

The intersection of gaming and science has birthed an innovative approach to scientific research and public engagement.
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The intersection of gaming and science has birthed an innovative approach to scientific research and public engagement. The article recently published in Nature Biotechnology delves into the story of “Borderlands Science,” a pioneering project that leverages the massive global community of video gamers to aid scientific research, specifically in the field of microbial phylogeny.

Launched within the popular video game “Borderlands 3,” Borderlands Science is a mini-game that presents players with puzzles related to the alignment of microbial DNA sequences. These puzzles are based on real scientific data from the Microsetta Initiative’s American Gut Project, which seeks to understand human microbiomes better. The game translates complex scientific challenges into accessible puzzles, where each solution helps refine the alignment of 16S ribosomal RNA sequences—a critical task in understanding microbial relationships that is difficult and slow for computers alone to process.

Since its introduction on April 7, 2020, the mini-game has seen extraordinary engagement. Over 4 million players have solved upwards of 135 million puzzles, contributing to significant scientific findings that have been detailed in a recent study published in Nature Biotechnology. The results highlight how the data generated through these games have improved microbial phylogeny estimations and UniFrac effect sizes—a measure used in microbiome studies—beyond what current computational methods achieved.

This model of “citizen science” taps into a previously underutilized resource—the time and cognitive surplus of the gaming community. By embedding scientific tasks into video games, researchers have found a method not only to scale data analysis beyond the limits of traditional science but also to engage an audience of millions in meaningful scientific tasks, potentially increasing public science literacy and interest in microbiology.

The success of Borderlands Science exemplifies a growing trend of integrating real scientific research into the gaming environment, proving that games can be more than just entertainment. They can be a crucial tool in tackling some of the most complex problems in science, demonstrating a significant shift in how scientific research can be conducted in the future. The implications for this approach are vast, suggesting a scalable new model for scientific inquiry that harnesses the power of human curiosity and problem-solving skills in unprecedented ways.