If you’ve spent any time on Facebook lately, you’ve probably seen posts about a ridiculously simple, but strangely addictive game called Candy Crush Saga. If you’ve enjoyed that game, and especially if you’re currently stuck on a level (I’m looking at you, number 29), you might want to consider a similar game called Fraxinus.
In the UK, the ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior, hence the game name) has been infected by a fungus called Chalara, which in turn causes a disease called “ash dieback.” Scientists want to figure out why the ash tree is so susceptible to Chalara, and why some trees are able to resist it. The game uses real genetic data represented by coloured patterns that you manipulate to help give scientists data on how the disease works at the genetic level. It involves matching and rearranging patterns of leaf shapes which represent nucleotides.
The game isn’t as mindless as Candy Crush, and adds a nifty competitive component. As you create a pattern, you create a score, and the better your match, the higher your score. Closely matched sequences earn high scores and allow players to “claim” patterns. If another player uses the same pattern to achieve a higher score, they can “steal” the pattern and claim it. Each so-called theft helps make the data more accurate; top scorers will have their names included in public databases and publications.
What’s at stake? If researchers don’t figure out ash dieback, they predict that 90-95% of ash trees in the UK could die; and of course, diseases rarely stay confined to individual countries any more. Many creatures depend on the ash, including the lesser stag beetle, owls and woodpeckers (for nests), and bullfinch (eats ash seeds). Ash woodlands support flowers like dogs mercury, bluebells and ramsons, and butterflies like the high brown fritillary, the dingy skipper, and the grayling.
Ready to play? You can go to http://apps.facebook.com/fraxinusgame/ right now and get started, and in true Facebook fashion, don’t forget to invite all of your friends to play. You can read more about the ash dieback problem here.