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Jan 15, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 2)

GEN's ELISA REDUX Cryptogram Solved

$1,500 Prize and Invitrogen's Neon Transfection System Go to Winning Team

  • Click Image To Enlarge +
    Forrest Collman

    An astronomer and a neuroscientist have solved GEN’s Cryptogram Challenge: ELISA REDUX. The two grad students, Charles Steinhardt, from the department of astronomy at Harvard University, and Forrest Collman, from the Tank Lab in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, came up with the answer to the Challenge: “To Quiz May Vex.”

    GEN, along with partner, Scintellix LLC, and sponsor, Invitrogen, part of Life Technologies Corporation, congratulate the winners on figuring out the code embedded in the 96-well microtiter plate image.

    The Challenge began running on the GEN and Invitrogen websites respectively, on October 15 and was finally solved in mid-December.

  • Click Image To Enlarge +
    Charles Steinhardt

    The two researchers won a $1,500 prize. Collman, the neuroscientist, also chose a second prize: one of five desktop instruments from Invitrogen. He selected the Neon™ Transfection System for delivering DNA and siRNA into difficult-to-transfect cells such as primary, stem, and hematopoietic cells.

    The winners are not only smart and creative but generous as well. They have chosen to donate the Neon Transfection System to Livly, a non-profit biotech company in Mountain View, CA, so that Livly scientists can carry out cancer research more effectively and efficiently.

    They will also send the $1,500 check to the MIT Mystery Hunt, an annual puzzle competition held at MIT during the January Independent Activity Period. The competition challenges each team to solve a large number of puzzles that lead to a coin hidden somewhere on campus.

    “We are delighted that Collman and Steinhardt have decided to donate the Neon system to such a worthy cause,” said Balwant Patel, director of market development at Invitrogen. “We are very hopeful that the high transfection efficiency and low cytotoxicity of the Neon system will be extremely beneficial to Livly scientists and to those who may share the system in their business incubator space.”

  • Creating the Challenge

    Peter C. Johnson, M.D., artist, and president and CEO of Scintellix LLC, is the creator of all of GEN’s Cryptogram Challenges. This latest Challenge is similar to an earlier one in that they both involve ELISAs. But, as Dr. Johnson notes, “ELISA REDUX was designed as a monochrome to accentuate the irony of its substantially greater difficulty than the previous, multicolored ELISA Cryptogram Challenge.”

    For the Challenge, Dr. Johnson embedded a cipher (algorithm for performing encryption and decryption) based on the cells in a standard ELISA plate.

    “In this latest edition of the Cryptogram Challenge, a follow on to last year’s ‘MicroArray Challenge,’ I wanted to once again highlight the magnitude of information that is buried in biological imagery,” explained Dr. Johnson.

    “As experimentalists, we always try to reduce test variable and potential interpretations to the simplest form possible. The Cryptogram Challenge: ELISA REDUX reveals that even when we do so, the potential for multiple interpretations remains.”

    The Cryptogram Challenge is the first in a series of puzzles that will appear in GEN that will leverage the information represented in multiple types of biological experimentation readouts.

    “Subsequent Challenges will grow in difficulty and will be used to continue to highlight the enormous amount of information that we need to filter from our experiments in order to derive correct conclusions,” continued Dr. Johnson.

    But ELISA REDUX itself was a toughie. Dr. Johnson provided 11 clues before the Challenge was solved. Indeed, the eleventh clue, “Only transparencies between 4 and 54 encode for letters,” was the clincher, at least for Steinhardt.

    “The last clue made it a solvable problem because the number of guesses we had to make was small enough so that we actually could test them,” explained Steinhardt.

    Collman, however, thought that “the critical clue was not the last clue but the clarification of the seventh clue to mean that the ROYGBIV spectrum number indicated that everything was green and that was four. Once you had the spectrum number, the number of possibilities from then on was pretty small.”

    Both men said it took about 24 hours to solve the Challenge, spread out over the ten weeks that the Challenge ran.


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