gaming with microbes

Bioengineer Ingmar Riedel-Kruse has two lifelong passions: microbes and video games.  Determined to find a way to bring these disparate interests together, he was struck by a strange idea- creating a gaming experience that operates based on biological processes by using live microbes.

Riedel-Kruse and several other scientists at Stanford University  have developed a basic game console that uses electric fields or chemical gradients to nudge tiny paramecia around a microfluid chamber. The motion of microbes causes computer animated paramecium to wriggle around on a player’s laptop screen. They have used this technology to create a variety of simple games, including “Ciliaball”, a soccer game, and “Pond Pong” a two player game that throttles microbes back and forth across a ping-pong interface by releasing chemical stimulants from a needle. Other prototype games, including “Biotic pinball”, “PAC-mecium” and “PolymerRace” all put a biotic spin on familiar video game motifs.

CREDIT: ALICE CHUNG AND INGMAR RIEDEL-KRUSE

Since their inception, video games have had utility beyond simple entertainment- they have defined cultural trends, transmitted information, and explored new ways of imagining the world. Despite the importance of biotechnology in many aspects of modern life, the field has had little impact on gaming.There is hope that this new gaming technology will provide scientists a way to crowdsource biology experiments and information to players- if they can make a game that keeps people’s attention.

New games involving live yeast and DNA are also under development. If you’re interested in learning more about this peculiar form of microbe-torture, check out this month’s issue of Lab on a Chip for a full description of new games.

“Petri Arcade”. 2011. Science: News of the Week. 331: 385.
Riedel-Kruse et al. 2011. Design, engineering and utility of biotic games. Lab on a Chip 11: 14-22.

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