Fraxinus: the Facebook game where players crack the genetic code of ash dieback disease

Puzzle game flags up to scientists genetic variants of the ash tree that will help stop the destruction of the species

For those of us who like to kill time but also save trees, a new Facebook game named Fraxinus is the perfect combination, offering both socially-conscious enterprise with good old-fashioned procrastination.

Developed by the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich and Bafta-nominated games developer Team Cooper, Fraxinus is a puzzle title in which solving combinations onscreen helps scientists decode the genetic structures necessary to stop ash dieback disease.

“When you log in, you see something a bit like an abacus with different coloured shapes,” explains Dan MacLean, head of Bioinformatics at Sainsbury Laboratory.  “And you’ve got the target plans which you’ve got to match to your patterns to as far possible. The rows that don’t match represent sites of genetic variation, resistant ash trees or susceptible variations.”

The patterns are created from four different colours which represent the four types of nucleotides that make up DNA. Matching up (or not) the different patterns flags up to scientists which of the samples they’ve taken from ash trees need further examination.

"We wanted to take this information that is quite locked up and quite inaccessible and really try and work that up for a specifically non scientific audience."

“There’s an assumption that a large database can crunch this information down and that’s not entirely true,” says Russell Stearman, lead developer at Team Cooper. “Humans are actually better at doing this. It’s all about pattern recognition: our brains are able to instantly look at something and make leaps of logic, whereas a computer has to run through every option.”

Plans for the game first started when MacLean approached Team Cooper late autumn last year, but it was not until March that enough data had been collected to feed into the game. The puzzles are currently ‘solving’ genetic samples collected from Ashwellthorpe and Upton Bridge, where the disease was first detected in the UK.

Currently the UK government and Forestry Commission have admitted defeat, estimating that between 90 and 99 per cent of the country’s 90 million ash trees will be wiped out. A plan to plant a quarter of a million trees in response to the crisis depends upon scientists isolating the genetic variations that resistant to the disease.

Named after the Latin for the ash tree, fraxinus excelsior, Fraxinus will hopefully harness the social element of Facebook in order to encourage people to play, inviting players to share their scores and compete with friends.

“This is potentially a very, very powerful tool,” says MacLean. “The project works on real data and the people who are playing are genuinely contributing. The first results will have gone to the database already, and we’ll be examining what people have found over the next couple of weeks.”