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Scientists Enlist New Resource: Online Gamers

September 20, 2011
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Frustrated after more than a decade of unsuccessfully trying to decipher the structure of a retrovirus enzyme, scientists turned to imaging, of a sort: online gamers immersed in the world of competitive protein folding.

The gamers figured it out. It took them three weeks.

An article published online Sunday in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology tells the story. It lists both the scientists and the gamers as coauthors. (To be fair to the scientists, the gamers came up with, essentially, a rough draft that researchers then refined to determine the enzyme’s exact structure.)

The enzyme plays a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and replicates, so scientists have wanted to develop ways to block it. But first, they had to know its structure. Enzymes are proteins, and proteins fold themselves into fiendishly complicated three-dimensional shapes.

Back in 2008, computer scientists at the University of Washington Center for Game Science in Seattle, collaborating with the protein structure lab of David Baker, PhD, professor of biochemistry, created a game called Foldit. It allows players to compete against each other in folding protein structures and has drawn a wide range of followers, as this video from the university explains. (Here’s another video, focusing more on the game itself and subtitled “Check out exactly what competitive protein folding is all about!”)

Foldit lets participants manipulate colorful on-screen images of proteins. People play the game for fun, but it was created for real scientific purposes, according to Zoran Popovic, PhD, associate professor of computer science and engineering and director of the Center for Game Science. A university news release quotes him as explaining thus:

The focus of the UW Center for Game Sciences is to solve hard problems in science and education that currently cannot be solved by either people or computers alone.

So why would gamers, some with no scientific or technical background, be able to solve a problem when scientists, backed by high-powered computers and specialized software, couldn’t? “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” said the University of Washington’s Seth Cooper, PhD, the lead designer and developer of Foldit. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”

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