HIV Breakthrough Made By Online Gamers
A screenshot from the Foldit game
The next time someone accuses you of ‘wasting time’ by sitting and playing games all day, refer them to the players of Foldit, an online game which has brought scientists one step closer to curing HIV by sucessfully making an accurate model of one of the enzymes of a retrovirus. By competing in teams to make the ‘best’ version of the enzyme, the players managed to show the likely structure of the enzyme that had been worked on for decades in only three weeks, therefore allowing scientists to work out how to block the enzyme and fight HIV-like viruses. The results were published yesterday with gamers and scientists appearing as co-authors.
Foldit was developed by the University of Washington in 2008 and allows players to unfold chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Looking at the chains under a microscope gives only a flattened 2d views of the chains, whilst the game can rotate them and unfold the proteins to give a better look. Once proteins can be identified in 3d, scientists can develop drugs to successfully block them, and therefore block the spread of viruses, cancers and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” Firas Khatib of the University said in a statment. “The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
Seth Cooper is one of Foldit’s creators. “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” he said. “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.”
Foldit user Mimi was one of the players who made the breakthrough in the game, as part of the Contenders Team. “In the case of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, I had looked at the structure of the options we were presented with and identified that it would be better if the ‘flap’ could be made to sit closer to the body of the protein — one of the basic rules of folding is to make the protein as compact as possible — but when I tried this with my solo solution, I couldn’t get it to work. However, when I applied the same approach to the evolved solution that had been worked on by other team members, I was able to get it to tuck in, and that proved to be the answer to the structure. I believe that it was the changes made by my colleagues that enabled mine to work, so it was very much a team effort.”
Mimi stresses that the best player in the team is not from a science or IT background. Foldit currently has over a quarter of a million players who are engaged in games to decipher ancient languages and search for planets as well as model proteins. You can sign up here at the game’s official site.