Researchers enlist gamers to find something fishy about mathematical models 

molecular scissors, disease, genetic, immune cells, drug development, Diabetes, Antibiotic, hydrogen generation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, malaria, photosynthesis, kidney failure, Brain tumours, mental health, blood cancer, cancer, dementia, cancer treatment, antibiotic resistance, blood vessel leakage, quantum simulations, atrial fibrillation, batteries, goiter treatment, terahertz radiation, organic materials , Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, gene copies, social anxiety, blue light screens, ‘Our hope is that these findings will make it possible to discover a way to selectively inhibit the TGF-beta signals that stimulate tumour development without knocking out the signals that inhibit tumour development, and that this can eventually be used in the fight against cancer,’ says Eleftheria Vasilaki, postdoctoral researcher at Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Uppsala University and lead author of the study. TGF-beta regulates cell growth and specialisation, in particular during foetal development. In the context of tumour development, TGF-beta has a complicated role. Initially, it inhibits tumour formation because it inhibits cell division and stimulates cell death. At a late stage of tumour development, however, TGF-beta stimulates proliferation and metastasis of tumour cells and thereby accelerates tumour formation. TGF-beta’s signalling mechanisms and role in tumour development have been studied at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at Uppsala University for the past 30 years. Recent discoveries at the Institute, now published in the current study in Science Signaling, explain part of the mechanism by which TGF-beta switches from suppressing to enhancing tumour development. Uppsala researchers, in collaboration with a Japanese research team, discovered that TGF-beta along with the oncoprotein Ras, which is often activated in tumours, affects members of the p53 family. The p53 protein plays a key role in regulating tumour development and is often altered – mutated – in tumours. TGF-beta and Ras suppress the effect of mutated p53, thereby enhancing the effect of another member of the p53 family, namely delta-Np63, which in turn stimulates tumour development and metastasis.

How can you tell if your mathematical model is good enough? In a new study, researchers from Uppsala University implemented a Turing test in the form of an online game (with over 1700 players) to assess how good their models were at reproducing collective motion of real fish schools. The results are published in Biology Letters.

Mathematical models allow us to understand how patterns and processes in the real world are generated and how complex behaviour, such as the collective movement of animal groups, can be produced from simple individual level rules. Fitting models based on the large scale properties of the data is one way to choose between different models, but can we be satisfied with our model when this has been achieved? How can we apply other methods to see how good our model fit is?

James Herbert-Read, researcher at the Department of Mathematics at Uppsala University, and his colleagues highlight and propose a solution to this problem by implementing a Turing test to assess how good their models were at reproducing collective motion.

They designed an online game where members of the public (over 1700 players online) and a small group of experts were asked to differentiate between the collective movements of real fish schools and those simulated by a model.

‘By putting the game online, and though crowd sourcing this problem, the public have not only become engaged in science, they have also helped our research,’ says James Herbert-Read.

Even though the statistical properties of the model matched those of the real data, both experts and members of the public could differentiate between simulated and real fish. The researchers asked the online players that answered all six questions correctly to give feedback on how they differentiated between the real schools and the simulated ones.

‘These players commonly suggested that the spatial organization of the groups and smoothness of the trajectories appeared different between the simulated and real schools. These are aspects of the model we can try to improve in the future’, says James Herbert-Read.

‘Our results highlight that we can use ourselves as Mechanical Turks through ‘citizen science’ to improve and refine model fitting’.

See the online game that was used in the study.

Also see the authors’ new game.