The Science of Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm! Within days of its release, it surpassed the dating app Tinder and even Twitter with number of users per day. People are getting out, exploring their neighborhoods, exercising, and meeting others. Groups like ASAP Science are urging you to look at the “real life Pokémon” (aka, wildlife) as you’re running around. In general, we’re all having a ton of fun reliving our days as young Pokémon Trainers, when we were squinting at our gameboy screens in low light.
Whilst playing Pokémon Go, Brad (from Science of Star Wars) came up with some more questions about science that stemmed from his experiences with the Pokémon universe. Kelsey sat down (and did a little research) to try to answer them.

1. Pokéballs convert living matter into energy, then into data, which can be stored and retrieved from a computer. Are there experiments going on in matter-to-energy conversion? Or vice versa? How possible is it?

If you think about it, we convert living matter into energy every time we eat fruits or veggies, but I don’t think this was quite the direction you were thinking of with this question. I don’t know of any research aimed at building a Willy Wonka style way to break living matter down to data, though I would definitely invest in some Pokéballs if someone can figure out how to make them work!

lab rat

Just a lab rat getting ready to do some experiments!

However, going the opposite direction, our DNA stores an immense amount of data, everything that makes us, us. You can think of DNA as the encrypted code that is transcribed into RNA so that it can be read and translated into protein. This DNA code is used to power our cells and store our genetic information on to our offspring. It isn’t as fast as a Pokéball, but nature’s had this DNA Data Storage thing all figured out for a while. Researchers have just recently figured out how to store non-genomic data on what they call a DNA Drive.  So far, scientists have successfully stored pictures, entire books, and even an OK Go Music Video in DNA! Scientists predict that data stored on DNA drives stabilized in glass could still be accessible after thousands to millions of years.

2. What kind of digital storage size are we looking at to store the data of a living being?

In a single cell, assuming that each DNA base is two bits (thus four bases are eight bits), one person determined the total about of DNA data in one cell is about 1.5 GB. The average human body has about 37.2 trillion human cells, so this puts the final amount of data in a human body at about 55.8 trillion GB! All of your cells, with the exception of sperm and eggs, have the same DNA composition. DNA from a single cell can be used to pass this data on. This is how we got Dolly the Sheep, essentially our first cut-and-paste clone.

3. Bulbasaur: the best starter. “It bears the seed of a plant on its back from birth. The seed slowly develops. Researchers are unsure whether to classify Bulbasaur as a plant or animal.”–The Pokédex. Do we have any animals like this in our world?

I have things to say about Bulbasaur being “the best starter” (because Charmander), but


Biotechie searching for Pokemon around school

that’s not going to help this discussion. In my opinion, the seed/plant on the its back has a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with bulbasaur and is completely independent from it. This means that the plant confers some benefit to the Bulbasaur, and the Bulbasaur helps the plant out, too. I would assume Bulbasaur itself is probably some sort of lizard or amphibian, so a plant that could help it absorb water would obviously be beneficial. Symbiotic relationships are everywhere, also including relationships where one participant is harmed (parasitic) and those where only one participant benefits, but the other is not harmed (commensal). An example in nature that reminds me of Bulbasaur are algae that live INSIDE the cells of the spotted salamander. During embryonic development, the algae provide oxygen to the embryos, and the egg is a safe, high-nitrogen environment that helps the algae to grow. Without the algae, the salamander embryos become deformed. Scientists aren’t positive how this symbiotic relationship works in the adult, yet, but they think the algae help the salamander take up nutrients.


Your own body has such relationships, too. Without the bacteria in your gut, there are many foods you would be unable to process and vitamins that would not be modified into the right forms for you to absorb. We can also have parasites like head lice or tapeworms. One well-known mutualistic symbiotic relationship in nature is the clownfish and the sea anemone. The clownfish is given shelter, while the anemone gets nutrients from the clownfish feces. Root nodules found on many plants, such as soybeans, are often filled with symbiotic fungi that help put nitrogen into a form the plant can use.

4. I know that Evolution works differently in the Pokémon world. And by differently, I mean completely wrong. Anything science would like to say about Pokémon evolution?

Pokémon is really great at getting kids interested in how changes occur, but true evolution takes thousands of years to occur for organisms like us. Evolution also occurs through the development of small changes over time that confer a benefit to the organism. You do not see sudden, complete changes with evolution. To equate what Pokémon do to what we see in nature, most Pokémon seem to undergo metamorphosis rather than evolution. Butterflies are one example of this. They begin life as a caterpillar, and later encase themselves into a chrysalis where their entire form “melts” and reorganizes into a butterfly. For those counting, that is THREE metamorphoses, similar to the in-game evolution in Pokémon from Caterpie to Metapod to Butterfree.

5. Has there been any research done into the seemingly universal, compulsory human desire to “catch ’em all,” whether that be Pokémon or baseball cards or Beanie Babies? Why do I need to have a complete set of something?

There are lots of different ways to think about this. Some psychologists say that we collect things because we learn early on to take comfort from material things. I think that collecting things may be a remnant of a hard-wired need to survive. In caveman days, we would have needed to collect as many resources as possible at all times in order to survive. Food and shelter could be scarce. Nowadays, those of us in the developed world no longer need to hunt. However, our minds still need to work on something, so instead of collecting food to keep us alive, we’re chasing digital Pokémon all over the city!

6. Pokémon Go is bringing people together in unique ways, both online and in person, connecting complete strangers through their common love of Pokémon. What differences are there between our social interactions in person vs those online. What’s different in our brains if I’m talking to a friend on Facebook about Pokémon Go vs. if I’m swapping curveball strategies with a stranger I met on the street?

Actual social interactions are always going to be better for us than digital ones. As social animals, we respond really well to facial expressions and touching, things you cannot get digitally. If someone is discussing where to find a Meowth with you and wrinkles their nose at the locale you want to search in, you’re going to understand much more quickly that they really don’t want to go than you would via text message. By the same token, a touch on your arm will help you pay attention and will help you feel more comfortable. These types of interactions give extra feedback, largely inaccessible through digital media, to a conversation. This is probably why text or IM conversations are often emotionally misinterpreted. People playing Pokémon Go are claiming that they feel happier and less anxious. Whether this is solely due to the mental benefits of getting out and exercising or in addition to the social benefits of playing Pokémon Go with others is yet to be determined. Regardless, we think it is pretty awesome!

7. How much Pokémon Go do I have to play to get my daily exercise? *note, I’m never gonna do any non-Pokémon related exercise*

You realize you’re talking to someone who does research related to obesity, right? The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 30 minutes of solid physical activity per day. For most people, this is the equivalent of walking briskly for 1.5 miles or so without stopping. In reality, you should be walking a  much larger total distance in a day while you’re at work or school. I average about 6-8 miles per day including a short runl. Apps like the FitBit tell you to aim for 10,000 steps per day, which equates to about 4-5 miles for an average-height person. About 4 miles per day is a good starting goal, be that while catching Pokémon or going for a (still enjoyable) non-Pokémon excursion. The most important part about getting exercise is that you also include some aerobic exercise to help keep your heart healthy. I have been chasing down Pokémon while I train for a 5K. I run my intervals app in the background, and I cover much more ground more quickly, finding more Pokémon and Pokéstops! I highly recommend it!





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