Gamers Vs. Scientists

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When you’ve got a problem that ten years of trying has failed to solve, it’s time to consider another approach. So recently, when scientists at the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry, led by Dr. Firas Khatib (a featured Gnomedex speaker a few years back), failed to configure the structure of a retrovirus enzyme even after a decade of trying, they decided to enlist help from an unlikely source: gamers.

“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” says Dr. Khatib.

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Since 2008, the University of Washington’s Foldit project has been encouraging people to use their grey matter and play Foldit — a game that combines elements of puzzle solving, pattern recognition, crowdsourcing, and distributed computing — to fold proteins and determine their active, three-dimensional conclusions. Pattern matching is one of those rare computations in which the human brain excels over what is currently possible by purely computerized means, and Foldit aims to take full advantage of this human brainpower.

Says researcher Dr. Seth Cooper: “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”

In only three weeks, this experiment paid off in ways where a decade of more traditional approaches had failed. Gamers were able to generate models that were close enough for the trained eyes of researchers to refine and discover the enzyme’s structure and discern vulnerabilities on the molecule that would make ideal targets for deactivation by drugs designed to knock it out. This could give us a vast new arsenal in the war against AIDS and other retroviral conditions.

The team’s findings are summed up in its paper, Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players, published in the September 18th edition of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

If you’d like to give Foldit a spin for a more complete idea of how you can make a difference in big deal endeavors like curing cancer, abolishing Alzeheimer’s, drop kicking immune deficiencies, efficient biofuel production, and more (while having fun), check out Foldit.


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