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Fraxinus: a crowdsourcing game to fight ash dieback disease

Fraxinus: a crowdsourcing game to fight ash dieback disease

When the tree killer ash dieback disease, also known as Chalara, was first found in the UK in February 2012 it became a major concern to anyone who recalled the devastation wrought by Dutch elm disease in the UK. In the ten years following its arrival, around 20M of an estimated population of 30M elm trees were dead.

Realising the scale of the problem and the need to act quickly, BBSRC-funded scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, and others utilised quick-response BBSRC funding to collaborate with scientists around the world through the OpenAshDieBack project – an 'open source' platform for scientists to share their data and publish results more quickly than publishing first in traditional journals.

Data breakout

80M Estimated number of ash trees in the UK
51057 Total number of visits Aug-Dec 2013, with 52% being return visitors
19.98 minutes Average playing time from Aug-Dec 2013

Another innovative way the team have tackled the problem is by developing a Facebook game called Fraxinus. The game presents players with real reference DNA sequences from the ash tree genome. Players are challenged to match up multiple DNA sequence reads from other samples against the references, making as close a match as possible, by shifting base pairs of DNA. Ultimately these differences could reveal regions of the genome that confer useful characteristics such as resistance, which could be bred into a new disease-resistant variety of ash tree to repopulate the UK.

Dr Dan MacLean, a bioinformatician based at The Sainsbury Laboratory, also on the Norwich Research Campus, says that when it became clear they had DNA data that would likely not get used in some of the downstream applications to try something that would allow lots of people to lend a hand. "And the best vehicle for that seemed to be a game."

The power of the Fraxinus game is that multiplied by tens thousands of gamers' hours – an approach known as 'crowdsourcing – certain analyses can outperform those done by a computer. At the same time, many thousands of people who might not ordinarily be interested in gaming or UK wildlife have engaged in an enjoyable activity; some think such games are the way many scientific problems will be solved in the future.