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In Silico et Vivo: When Life Science Draws Inspiration from Video Games


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Before coming to New York, I led a dual life. During the work week, I was a neuroscientist in training. I went to class, handled monkeys, and took more than my fair share of grad school happy hour snacks. But when I wasn’t thinking about brains, I was usually thinking about games. I’ve bought nearly every console that’s come out since 2000, except for the Xbox. That thing was a big hunk of ugly.

Anyway, we had already spent two weeks learning about the embryonic development of the nervous system. This wasn’t (and still isn’t) a topic I care for. I was usually the guy that nodded off every two minutes, only to jerk back awake because it looked like my head was too heavy for my neck to support it. This day would be different though. My professor kept saying something over, and over, and over again that actually held my attention. This was the day that I learned that there was a protein named Sonic Hedgehog.

Let that sink in for a moment. This dude…


[Image Credit: The Fame via Flickr]

…has a protein.

Sure, video games borrow from science all the time in order to bring some credibility to their universe. But it’s pretty rare to see the opposite happen. Here’s some of the few examples of video game franchises that successfully made the jump (for better or worse) into the world of life science.

1. Sonic the Hedgehog

[Image Credit: NickStone333 via Flickr]

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard worked with fruit flies for most of her scientific career, later winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995 for her work in developmental genetics. She found a gene that, when deactivated, caused fruit fly embryos to become covered with denticles, which are small pointy growths that look like little quills. Based on what that mutation did, she named this gene hedgehog.

However, this was just the beginning of hedgehog’s scientific legacy. Researchers started looking for the mammal equivalent. It turns out that there’s not only one, but three genes that control this stage of embryonic development. Two of them are named after real hedgehog species (Indian hedgehog and Desert hedgehog), but the third was named after Sega’s mascot.

The first time a lab coined the phrase Sonic hedgehog was in December 1993, by Andrew McMahon at Harvard. The gene is also responsible for making the protein Sonic hedgehog (without italics) that acts as a morphogen and helps embryonic tissue develop. Unlike regular old hedgehog, Sonic hedgehog plays a more advanced role. Probably because we have nervous systems more advanced than fruit flies.

Imagine a long narrow pipe lying on top of a table. This is the neural tube, your central nervous system when you’re an embryo. You have the dorsal half (the part of the tube that’s closer to the ceiling) and the ventral half (the part that’s closer to the table). During embryonic development, the ventral half manufactures Sonic hedgehog like crazy. The protein diffuses upwards, establishing a concentration gradient. Long story short, the gradient acts like a blueprint for the spinal cord. The embryo will ship out the appropriate ventral neurons to where there’s a high concentration of Sonic hedgehog.

In addition, a protein’s function can be inhibited by other molecules. At the Broad Institute in Boston, Stuart Schreiber’s lab synthesized a molecule to block Sonic hedgehog’s function. In another nod to Sega’s most successful franchise, he named it Robotnikinin, after Sonic’s arch nemesis.

2. Pac-Man

[Image Credit: The Pug Father via Flickr]

Ceratophrys ornata is also known as the Ornate Horned Frog or by its video game name, the Pacman Frog. Unlike Sonic, this guy has the honor of having an entire animal named after him, rather than just a protein. The etymology isn’t quite as clear with this one, but it’s easy to see how it got its nickname by looking at a couple pictures.

The comparisons don’t end there. Pac-Man goes around his maze, living his life and gobbling up anything he finds ad infinitum. The Pacman frog is perhaps not as voracious an eater, but he will chomp down on any critters nearby, including mice, lizards, and other frogs. Unlike their namesake, these frogs do not go wopple wopple wopple wopple. Their utterances sound less like Kermit and more like Donald Duck.

3. Space Invaders

[Image Credit: Philosofia via Flickr]

There’s an urban myth about an arcade game known as Polybius. The story goes that anyone who played the game would become addicted. After a couple days, they would experience a variety of symptoms, including night terrors, memory loss, and suicidal tendencies. Regardless of whether the legend of Polybius has any truth to it, some arcade games have been known to cause a medical incident or two.

In February of 1981, Dr. DN Rushton reported a case of what he called Space Invader epilepsy. Rushton accompanied a 17 year old boy to the arcade and watched him play, reporting that the last two seconds of the game featured “a multicoloured stroboscopic effect” that triggered a grand mal seizure. However, if this game over screen sounds unfamiliar, there’s a reason. The good doctor wasn’t watching him play Space Invaders, but the game Astro Fighter.

About a year and a half later, Dr. TK Daneshmend and Dr. MJ Campbell reported a similar incident in a 17 year old girl playing the game Dark Warrior. The two doctors called Rushton out on naming the condition after Space Invaders, since both cases weren’t triggered by that game. Instead, they request that it be renamed electronic space war video game epilepsy. Their column mentions the games Asteroids and Defender, stating that though no cases of seizures have happened with those titles, they may happen in the future.

Side note: doctors in the 80s really didn’t like having their first names published in medical journals.

4. Pokemon

[Image Credit: Katrinket via Flickr]

In 2005, Pier Paolo Pandolfi was working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, searching for a way to stave off tumor formation. He worked with the gene Zbtb7, which appeared to serve an indirect role in making cells cancerous. The actual mechanism is a complex cell signaling network. It involves genes that suppress tumors, proteins that inhibit the genes that suppress tumors, gene mutations that decrease the production of the proteins that inhibit the genes that suppress the tumors…and somewhere along the way was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

Once Pandolfi was able to make heads and tails of the whole thing, he renamed Zbtb7 to something more descriptive: the POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic factor. Once you string all those bolded letters together, you’re left with Pokemon. Nintendo threatened legal action, since they didn’t want their franchise to be associated with…y’know…

CANCER.

Though Pandolfi conceded and went back to calling it Zbtb7, other scientists found a different way to link biochemistry and pocket monsters. In 2008, Takahisa Furukawa and his labmates at the Osaka Bio Institute named their newly discovered protein pikachurin. It’s found at the photoreceptor ribbon synapse, where it transforms light energy in the environment to chemical energy through the optic nerve, eventually relaying the signal to the visual centers of our brain. The reason they named it after the chicken nugget shaped critter? Mice that have pikachurin in their retinas process visual signals much more quickly than their pikachurin-lacking brethren, making their vision lightning fast.

Sure beats cancer.

Jon Chang About the Author: Jon Chang is a graduate student at the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) at New York University. He prefers listening over reading and speaking over writing, hence his love for all things radio and podcasting. He currently interns at Science Friday and regularly contributes to WNYU's science radio show, The Doppler Effect. Follow on Twitter @JonMChang.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. lalalazoe 9:03 am 10/21/2012

    Your blog is very interesting.But I have some questions about the meaning of some words(I’m Chinese.)These words maybe American slangs.So can you explian them in a natural way?
    Such as:”In Silico et Vivo”,”these frogs do not go wopple wopple wopple wopple” wopple?

    Link to this
  2. 2. JunkCarsFL 2:56 pm 01/31/2014

    One of my favorite Video game characters. I grew up sleeping with a Sonic doll when I was little.

    https://www.junkcarsfl.com/contactjunkcarsflorida.html

    Link to this

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