Scientists from UK are making an unconventional effort in order to save the ash forests from the epidemic caused by the Chalara fraxinea fungus, which is destroying the woodlands to the extent that the infected area’s ecology is disrupted. In cooperation with the game development company, Team Cooper, Facebook puzzle game called Fraxinus was created in order to help the botanists determine why the trees are dying and how they might resist the disease.
By matching up the rows of colored leaves, which represents real genetic information from the ash tree, and from the Chalara fraxinea fungus, the players are helping by lining up draft genomes. The ultimate goal is to encode the genetic variations in genome that are the base of resilience that some ash trees possess, as well as to find out what is the genetic base of Chalara’s lethal effect.
In order to do that, scientists needs to encrypt about 60 million nucleotides of ash tree genomes and one billion nucleotides of Chalara genome. The machine can do only a limited sequencing of DNA at a time, but what is more important – humans are better in recognizing patterns, as those skills cannot efficiently be replaced by a computer. Thus, every player counts.
“Each play of the game will contribute a small but useful analysis. The more people who play it, the more accurate the results will be for us and the quicker we can generate the information needed to help our woodlands recover from the current epidemic,” said Dr Dan MacLean from The Sainsbury Laboratory, initiator of this idea. Additionally, Facebook players with top scores will be acknowledged for their efforts in saving the ash forests by including their names in public databases and publications.
Chalara fraxinea fungus causes a very serious disease called Chalara dieback of ash, with the symptoms of leaf and crown dieback losses, which usually leads to a tree’s death. Young ash plants go down within one season of infection, while the older trees can resist for several seasons before dying. The first outbreak was reported in 1992 in Poland, and the Chalara has spread rapidly ever since. “It has caused widespread damage to ash populations on the European continent, including estimated losses of between 60 and 90 per cent of Denmark’s ash trees,” according to the Forestry Commission of Great Britain. It is estimated that 90-95 per cent of UK’s ash trees can die from this deadly disease, especially if scientists do not find the resilience genetic code soon. Currently, population of the UK’s ash trees is about 80 million, with some more than 1,000 years old.
“We can get a fast start on evolution rather than leaving these trees out there finding a way to fight the pathogen over decades or even centuries,” Dr Joan Webber, principal pathologist with the UK agency Forest Research and game adviser, out spoke for the BBC news.
Two weeks after the game was released, and the public had been called to help in saving the ash forests has resulted in more than 10 000 active players. If you wish to have some fun and contribute to this worthwhile process, the Facebook game can be found here. Let us know about your experience with the game!
By: Milica Zujko