September 27, 2013 - The biotechnology industry has changed since it was founded in 1976. What started by replicating human hormones has evolved into engineering entirely new classes of medicines.
As a healthcare company, we would like to see that progress continue. As an aging society, we need that progress to speed up.
To do so, we must find new ways to excite and educate the next generation of scientists and inventors. But not only the scientific crowd. It is important that we maintain an atmosphere that is conducive to exploration.
Since biotechnology is what we do, and since it is becoming increasingly important to our everyday lives, we thought we’d start there.
Making the fundamentals, well, fun
We decided to make a game that would be both fun and educational. We wanted it to be simple enough that it would appeal to a younger generation, but intelligent enough that science jocks of every age would appreciate the genius. So we created Ralph’s Killer Muenster.
The premise of the game is that cheese has accidentally fallen off a delivery truck and has been washed into the San Francisco sewer system. The cheese is now traveling underground, mutating with every turn of the pipes.
Players use step-wise logic to reverse engineer the mutated cheese back to its original source in as few steps as possible. Once the source is found at the end of the game, then an antidote can be created by the scientists - at Genentech, obviously - to avert a cheesy catastrophe.
It sounds pretty straightforward, and it is, but the game mechanics also highlight a very important principle of genetics called maximum parsimony. Maximum parsimony posits that the simplest answer is usually the correct one. For genetics it means that genes (and by extension, species) are believed to evolve via the most direct route possible.
Here’s how one of our more academic players - thanks @nyff! - described it on the AppStore:
“The game is based on the principle of maximum parsimony as a method for identifying potential ancestral traits and therefore identifying the potential origin mutant muenster. Parsimony reconstruction finds ancestral states that minimize the number of steps of species change/mutation given a phylogenetic tree. A full parsimony reconstruction therefore requires a search of both the most efficient tree structure, as well as the most efficient ancestral path along the tree. So the game mechanic is the exact same as the real-world method used in genetic research. The game abstracts 3 traits of imaginary cheese specimens visually with unique visual representations (shape, lines, nodes).
Your job is to reconstruct the phylogenetic tree based on the species sample in as few of moves (mutations) as possible.
Your cheese is safe
In case you’re asking yourself if the cheese in your fridge can mutate and take over your home, the answer is no. However, most natural foods contain DNA from the plant or animal from which they originated.
Read 7 Ways Biotech Impacts You for more on the relationship between cheese and genetics.
If Ralph’s Killer Muenster has piqued your interest to learn more about genetics, visit the Genetics Home Reference from the NIH. It has tools to understand genetic concepts as well as a list of genetic disorders and human genes.
And of course, play the game. Ralph Swoyer, and the city of San Francisco, thank you.