Later this month, an unusual scientific race will be run on the site of a former navy yard in Boston, Massachusetts.

The racetracks will be about 800 micrometres long, constructed from simple silicone mazes. Doping and genetic enhancement are not only allowed, but encouraged. And the racers will be Dictyostelium slime moulds, lured to the finish line by chemicals normally secreted by their favourite food — bacteria.

The trainers of the mould that wins on 16 May will get a US$5,000 prize and 15 minutes in the spotlight at the Annual International Dictyostelium Conference in Potsdam, Germany, in August. For the victorious ‘Dicty’? Perhaps a little extra sugar added to its culture medium, jokes bioengineer Daniel Irimia, who is hosting the competition in his laboratory at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Dicty World Race is a refreshing and beguiling way to bring attention to legitimate scientific questions: what guides cell migration and how can it be manipulated? The answers could inform our understanding of how cells move to the correct position in a developing embryo, or how immune-system cells flock towards invading bacteria. The race will also pit Dicty against human leukaemia cells, which are often faster than the slime mould, but are not as adept at navigating mazes.

The cash prize has been donated by members of the public and could be bigger by race day, but the winner is unlikely to be able to retire on the proceeds. Nevertheless, a prize was important, Irimia says, to lure researchers who do not normally study Dicty. Judging from the mix of 20 teams that have signed up for the race, the strategy has worked. Irimia hopes that the race will also introduce Dicty researchers to the power of rigorously quantifying their cell-migration assays, and to methods they can use to do so.

Since it first appeared in the scientific literature in 1935, Dictyostelium discoideum and its related species have built a surprisingly large and devoted fan base. The government mycologist who first described D. discoideum — having scraped it off decaying leaves in the mountains of North Carolina — prized it for the ease with which he was able to cultivate it on dung-agar plates. Later researchers would also value its streamlined, easy-to-analyse genome, and the way its single, independent cells can aggregate into multicellular structures.

At its best, the coterie of Dicty researchers — like many other small scientific communities that congregate around cherished model organisms — stands as a model for how science should be conducted. The group is tight-knit and collaborative. Researchers trade protocols, strains and even the occasional unpublished result. They sing the praises of their beloved Dicty, and generally prefer the respectful descriptor ‘social amoeba’ to the disparaging ‘slime mould’.

Furthermore, the Dicty World Race is an example of an emerging way to stimulate scientific discussion. A similar spirit is evoked by computer games that draw on the power of crowds to solve protein structures (see Nature 466, 685–687; 2010) and trace neural connections. There are also scientific games based on microfluidic devices that allow players to manipulate living creatures, such as protozoa, using electric fields or chemicals. In ‘the prisoner’s smellemma’ — a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma strategy game — players mix samples of yeast or buffer in a test tube, and then smell the result to guess what their opponent used.

Such games are positive for science, and we should encourage their spread. An engaging way to attract attention not only from researchers in other fields, but also from the public, they highlight — and perhaps rejuvenate — the sense of play that drew many to science in the first place.