Gamers Beat Computers In Designing Proteins for Scientific Research

Nature/Video screen capture

A new online game called Foldit has gamers trying out their hand at a complex puzzle: how to fold proteins.

As Martin LaMonica states on CNet, "Proteins are involved in many types of reactions inside the human body, such as breaking down food or sending signals from the brain. Better understanding and controlling the shape of proteins can accelerate drug research for HIV, Alzheimer's, or cancer. Engineering proteins that catalyze a chemical process, called enzymes, can also speed up production of renewable fuels and chemicals, too."

Nature/Video screen capture

Foldit is a game that allows humans, instead of computers, to manipulate proteins and figure out what shapes are best for curing various diseases. As it turns out, people are a whole lot better than computers at designing new shapes. So a crowdsourced game is a perfect solution for adding to the brain power behind new protein designs. Foldit is also a fantastic example of the use of technology to connect citizen scientists to projects -- the game can be played on Windows, Mac or Linux, and players simply log on and start working away.

Proteins are formed as a chain of amino acids, which then needs to be folded into a 3D shape that minimizes stress on the structure -- and that folding has to be done with the least amount of energy input. The challenge is to figure out just what shape that is for various amino acid chains. But make no mistake, Foldit truly is a game; the players don't need to have any background in science. They only need to have patience, persistence, and a drive to solve the puzzle. And their results help to further scientific research.

"You could imagine where you come home in the evening and you can either stay up all night playing Halo or be designing an HIV vaccine with people around the world. Which would you be happier saying you did when you went to work in the morning?" the game's creator and University of Washington biochemist David Baker tells Nature:

From the gamers in the video, you can see success is sweet, when it finally happens.

“I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it,” says Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher working in biophysics in Baker’s group, in a paper on Nature. “Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it.”

Over 240,000 players are registered and 2,200 were active just last week. And these players are making real change -- according to the Nature article, they were able to help design small protein inhibitors that can block the 1918 pandemic flu virus. They're now working on more inhibitors that could lead to future drugs.

The Foldit game is one in a lengthening line of scientific and environmentally-minded games that can help boost awareness of environmental issues such as water supply or water pollution, or energy efficiency, trash or carbon emissions and so on. The primary question with many of these science/nature/eco is will games ever really change behavior. It is possible, but with games like Foldit, we don't have to ask that question. The purpose of the game is to add to a knowlege base. And the gamers behind Foldit are doing that on a daily basis.

Tags: Computing | Diseases | Games

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