Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pac-mecium: The game of life?

by silvermom (June 2011)

        The golden age of electronics is here, and science is embracing it with open arms.  The whole world, or at least the whole Internet, is in our pockets.  And with the star walk application, a guide to the night sky on our gadgets, we can navigate our way to the heavens.
But the endless possibilities for science in a console are not limited by cyberspace or outer space. Physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team developed a game called Pac-mecium that is hitting the virtual world.  Only, the game is not as virtual as it seems. Pac-mecium is pacman with a twist: a paramecium assumes the game’s starring role. Players direct the protozoan’s movement inside a fluid chamber by changing the polarity of an applied electric field. The live image is projected in real time to a computer screen wherein the fluid chamber is superimposed with a Pac-Man game board.  Players guide the paramecium to eat virtual yeast cells and avoid a big yellow fish.  The game even keeps score!  Better yet, single-cell gamers are not limited to munching Pac-dots.  In addition to Pac-mecium, there is biotic pinball and pond pong.  Take your pick.
       All of the science enthusiasts that I know needed to have their jaws collected from the floor after hearing about these biotic games.  But the general public irately wags their pointer fingers, raising an ethical debate.  Are we scientists playing g-d by controlling the movement of these unicellular organisms?
A quick review of elementary biology will tell you that paramecia are akin to amoebas.  They cannot see, taste, touch, or hear. Although they respond to signals, and discriminate between brightness levels, they neither have a brain nor a heart. They can move and eat and reproduce by splitting themselves in half.

     The biotic game engineers went beyond the norms of virtual reality games by incorporating living cells.  They see the games as educational tools that can further knowledge in biomedicines and biotechnology.  But the negative public feedback counters that science has yet to determine the limit of sensory perception and information processing in living organisms. Detractors are concerned that the paramecia may have consciousness despite almost a hundred year’s worth of research to the contrary.
In my opinion the idea of biotic games, while clearly a good start, is wasted on the paramecium.  Pac-mecium is a good teaching tool, likely to elicit questions from young minds regarding life forms that are invisible to the naked eyes.   But it is the logical next step that gets me excited.  Using live imaging techniques to track bacteria and viruses, scientists might pique the curiosity of the young and get them interested in the complex pathways of the cells and infection, how viruses usurp the cell’s energy storage, and perhaps even inspire new paradigms in preventing infectious diseases.  Maybe invent a new game dropping drug bombs, angry bird-style, on fluorescent viruses and watch them disappear. 100 points per virion! But unlike directing the paramecia that move senselessly around, the objective would be to block infection and kill the pathogens.  Or would that be unethical too?

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