Algal Guard: Unlocking the Secrets of probiotics in a Microbiome Adventure Game
Date of publication: Oct 24, 2023

Ghent University has together with Digital Arts And Entertainment students from HOWEST, created an interactive experience that delves into the intriguing and enigmatic world of microbiomes. This unique game allows players to step into the shoes of bacteria living within a seaweed host and explore the intricate web of interactions and dependencies that govern this mysterious realm. Inspired by the symbiotic relationship between Bryopsis, a green seaweed, and its microbial inhabitants, this game takes players on a journey to understand why bacteria produce vitamins and assist their seaweed host while trying to decipher the complex dance of regulation that keeps the system in balance.

Bacteria inside the seaweed Bryopsis. Arrows indicate bacteria: cEK, “Ca. E. kahalalidefaciens“, a bacterium which has recently been shown to produce toxins that protect the seaweed from being grazed upon; OB, other bacteria. Source: DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw6732 

In this virtual world, players take on the role of bacteria residing within the seaweed. The game concept mirrors the intriguing concept of a “microbiome on a leash” ( Players must make choices to be opportunistic and grow faster or to play by the rules, knowing that the host’s immune system will make it harder for them if they misbehave.

The game offers an immersive and educational experience, targeting teenagers in particular, providing insight into the fascinating world of microbiomes, seaweed, and microbial interactions. Players will:

  1. Navigate through the branching tubes of the Bryopsis seaweed, exploring the virtual ecosystem.
  2. Interact with other microbes and the seaweed host.
  3. Balance the trade-offs between growth and cooperation, aggression and avoidance.
  4. Evolve their bacteria based on the choices they have made.
  5.  Face-off the final boss, a bacterivorous nematode that had infected the host.
Screenshot from Algal Guard

One of the most exciting aspects of this game is its potential to educate players about real-world scientific concepts. By engaging in the microbiome adventure, players gain a better understanding of the intricate relationships that exist between different organisms, and the concept of cooperation and competition within ecosystems.

We hope this game can serve as a valuable teaching tool for educators, offering a fun and immersive way to explain complex scientific ideas. Moreover, it raises awareness about the role of microorganisms in maintaining the health of ecosystems and the potential for probiotics to be used in the restoration of marine habitat forming organisms.

The game is freely accessible here:

Written by Willem Stock, UGENT