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

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

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.

Forrest Collman

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.”

Charles Steinhardt

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.

Veteran Puzzle Enthusiasts

In addition to being researchers, Steinhardt and Collman pointed out that one of their main hobbies is solving cryptograms and other types of puzzles. They believe those experiences, combined with their scientific talents, helped them crack the Cryptogram Challenge.

“Solving complex puzzles and quizzes and having a scientific background are related. Both value the same skill, i.e., being able to look at a mass of data and finding something useful in it. Forrest and I tend to take a lot of really complex data and try to figure out a way to understand why nature is making these data come about. We then look for patterns that might suggest an explanation,” said Steinhardt.

“I put more of an emphasis on having done a lot of cryptograms in the past,” added Collman. “Being a scientist helps you become proficient at solving cryptograms but understanding the structure of these puzzles is maybe what made us marginally better at solving them than other scientists who have equal, if not better, ability at analyzing complex data.”

Steinhardt and Collman regularly participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt, which was mentioned earlier.

“The way the ‘Hunt’ works is that there are several teams of varying sizes, but some are quite large, including the team that Charles and I are usually on,” said Collman. As the Hunt basically happens 24/7 for three days, the team organizers arrange for a space with a kitchen and they buy food for the 75 people or so on the team. Typically people are encouraged to contribute to this fund, but inevitably the organizers are still stuck with several hundreds of dollars in expenses at the end of it,” explained Collman.

“Since the Mystery Hunt is a big reason why Charles and I are interested in cryptograms, and a main reason for our success, we decided to donate the money to our Mystery Hunt team, ‘The Manic Sages’ to offset the cost of supplies and the space we will use for this year’s Hunt.”

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