Time-Wasting Tip #10 for the Overworked Grad Student

Graduate Division

Got a long incubation time to kill? Waiting for your cells to spin? Bored in-between classes? In class?  This week, we have another game: Phylo (found at phylo.cs.mcgill.ca), and like FoldIt, it’s both addicting and educational.

Back in the old days, phylogenetic trees that depict the interrelatedness of different organisms were organized mainly based on physical features, shared habitat and other observable traits.

Now, with the advent of inexpensive genetic technology, we can also compare genetic sequences of genes between species and compare their relatedness on the basis of their DNA.

When comparing gene sequences, aligning the DNA can be a tricky business and is computationally difficult — but Phylo uses the natural pattern-seeking capability of our brains to generate sequence alignments that computers may miss.

Try it out by shifting around the locations of colored DNA bases on the grid and align genes from two to nine different species.

In just one sitting, I learned the basics and went from beginner to expert alignments, so it’s quite intuitive. And, as in the past, this one’s a great time waster for those worried about being caught doing something other than reading papers — you’re basically just BLASTing someone else’s data, right?

Check next week for another grad-student approved distraction — suggestions are welcome!