You might have read the other week about the breakthrough in AIDS research. A problem that had hounded scientists for decades was solved in ten days. By computer gamers playing the now legendary citizen science game Fold.it, which allows anybody to login and try to fold proteins into their correct configuration.
The problem and novel solution stems from the trouble scientists have when viewing the proteins in two dimensions, when they really need a three dimensional model, because the way a protein is arranged is instrumental in figuring out how it works.
Projects like Foldit and Galaxy Zoo have been running for years, but now more than ever, scientists are turning to citizen science games as an opportunity to crowd source their puzzles. Most recently to join the bunch is the NASA project called MAPPER (Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research), which has users flipping through photos of the bottom of Pavilion and Kelly Lakes in British Columbia. The object is to tag them with their contents or discarding them if they are blurry, obscured, or a photo of some drunk guy’s face (never leave your submersible camera unattended at a party).
What is NASA looking for? Stromatolite! Or more specifically, microbialite. Astute readers will recognize the word as a combination of “microbial” and “dolomite” the greatest of the “ites.” Not really, but it is microbial and geologic in nature. Microbialites, and Stromatolites in general, are geologic structures that form when sediment is trapped and cemented by cyanobacteria in hypersaline lakes. That is, supersalty lakes where nothing else lives have large populations of microbial algae that trap sediment, which piles up and cements together over time. What you get is a rock that essentially “grows,” taking an unmistakably coral-like shape. This is not a far cry, as many ancient coral actually secreted limestone-like materials to use as their shells*.
Why are they looking? Studying geobiological rock formations give us a two-fold understanding of bacterial life. Through analysis of the fossilized remains inside the stromatolites, scientists can take an unparalleled look into the history of such life on the planet. Meanwhile, by studying the morphology of these formations, astrobiologists now have handy, identifiable structures to look for when exploring other worlds.
So, is it fun? It’s more of a grad student project than a game, but regardless, I found myself having sorted through 30 photos before I knew it, and finding a spectacular microbialite “chimney” or a close-up of a algae forest gives you that warm “treasure hunt” feeling. Though there is a tutorial before you start, I found it difficult sometimes to discern a small microbialite formation from a cluster of rocks in the sediment. Regardless, this is a quick and easy way to do some citizen science, as well as learn just how diverse the bottom of a lake can be.
Image of microbialite chunk courtesy of Space Photo Bill.
*I wrote about ancient Horn Coral and the formation of New York’s Finger Lakes over on Sci-ənce.org