Online gamers of a video game called Foldit have helped researchers discover the structure of an protein-cutting enzyme produced by an AIDS-like virus found in monkeys. The discovery may lead to new drugs to fight HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Scientists have struggled with the problem for a decade, but the gamers helped crack it in just three weeks. A research paper describing the solution was published online Sunday in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
Foldit was created by the University of Washington’s Centre for Game Science in collaboration with the Baker Lab in 2008. Players compete and co-operate to find the best ways to fold a protein into a 3D structure based on the laws of physics. The shape of a folded protein is crucial to its function as a lock or key in biological processes. Foldit gamers were able to create a protein model that was “good enough” for researchers to refine into a workable model, the University of Washington said.
Played by thousands of people worldwide, Foldit requires no real knowledge of proteins or structural biochemistry, but instead relies on human spatial awareness and three-dimensional pattern matching skills. Players can pull, twist, and manipulate a protein to generate the most efficiently “folded” molecule that obeys all the basic laws of physics.
“The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the M-PMV PR structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowd-sourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.”