Concepts in Kids' Math Game Apply to DNA, Research Shows
Santa Ana, CA, Jun 27, 2012 This month, researchers from the MIND Research Institute explained how the mathematical concepts in one of the ST Math® computer games used by nearly half a million elementary school children could help biologists predict how certain enzymes act on DNA. The findings, which were presented at the recent Northern meeting of the London Mathematical Society International Workshop on Mathematics of Human Biology, could lead to the development of new drugs and treatments of cancer and human infectious diseases.
In addition to its value to the scientific community, the research shows that children in 26 states who play the “Big Seed” game as part of the ST Math curriculum developed by MIND, are mastering the geometric principals that underpin complicated DNA functions and structure. This is important for those concerned about preparing U.S. students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
“What’s amazing to me is that kids, starting in second grade, are playing the Big Seed game in the ST Math software and developing the conceptual ability to see these patterns,” said Mark Bodner, Ph.D., lead author of the study and co-founder and President of the Research Division of the MIND Research Institute. “This will have implications for the future of science and medicine, which I find extremely exciting.”
The goal of the Big Seed game is to create mirror images of symmetric tiles, or “seeds,” to perfectly tile portions of the 2-dimensional plane, using spatial-temporal reasoning. This multi-level game is a favorite of second graders in the ST Math program, but is challenging even for adults. (Curious adults can download the Big Seed from the iTunes App Store.)
Bodner’s research involved applying the mathematical model embodied in Big Seed to show how enzymes called topoisomerases and recombinases act on DNA. Topoisomerases are the enzymes that keep DNA untangled and unknotted in the cell. Recombinases are the enzymes that manipulate, cut and paste segments of the genetic code in DNA to, for example, activate those segments or suppress them. Understanding the exact way in which these essential enzymes cut, paste and tug DNA could lead to the development of treatments for a variety of diseases such as anticancer drugs, or attacking antibiotic resistant bacteria.
However, determining the action of these enzymes in the lab is extremely difficult, and the available experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography or electron microscopy provide only limited information. That’s where math can help. Mathematical models like the one Bodner describes—and that Big Seed illustrates—enable scientists to predict the precise chain of actions enzymes make on the DNA, with only the limited experimental information. This information could be applied to develop new drugs and for a variety of diseases. Understanding how the enzymes function could also allow the characterization of newly discovered recombinases, expanding the genetic engineering toolkit and allowing the treatment of genetic disorders by directly altering damaged DNA.
“We’re showing the mathematical models of how enzymes work to recombine DNA, with vital applications,” said Bodner. “This work adds to the genetic engineering toolkit that doctors can use to treat genetic disorders, cancer and antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
In addition to his position at the MIND Research Institute, Bodner is adjunct professor of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh and a visiting professor in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience of the East China Normal University. He presented his findings to the London Mathematical Society’s International Workshop on Mathematics of Human Biology on June 7, sharing data from a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Mathematical Physics and recognized and included in the Virtual Journal of Biological Physics. The paper was co-authored by Matthew Peterson, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, chief technical officer and co-founder of the MIND Research Institute, who created the Big Seed game.
Big Seed is one of more than 300 games in the Spatial Temporal (ST) Math: K-5 instructional software program and it can be downloaded from the Apple App Store. The grade-level software is designed to build students’ spatial temporal reasoning, namely the ability to conduct higher level problem-solving and creative thinking through the visual manipulation of objects. The computer-animated software games are visually based, initially conveying math concepts without the use of language or symbols, presenting the math as a puzzle that must be solved. The puzzles get increasingly difficult and language is introduced after students have mastered the visual representations of the math.