Computer Games
The passion of computer gamers is being tapped to solve real scientific problems. Image: Flickr / willmerydith / CC-BY-SA

The treatment of HIV and AIDS has been essentially the same since 1996. One of the biggest challenges for researchers has been untangling how the enzymes of the virus work and interact. Now, in three weeks, a group of gamers untangled an AIDS-like virus that researchers have been puzzling over for a decade.

The Foldit Phenomenon

Foldit is a crowd-sourced game created in 2008 by a group from the University of Washington. The game taps the resources of thousands of players and their problem-solving ability to solve scientific puzzles. Brute-force computing alone cannot solve many problems, because proteins and enzymes do not always follow a logical progression that computers can untangle. Foldit turns these enzyme and protein puzzles into computer games that assign points and winners to these challenges.

Foldit untangles MRP

The monomeric retro-viral protease is an AIDS-like virus with enzymes that have proven a mystery. Researchers have identified the enzymes in the virus, but seeing it flat on a slide has not provided enough information to identify how to design drugs to fight the virus. Researchers needed to see how the protein is tangled. After a decade of trying to figure it out, the challenge was uploaded to Foldit. After three weeks, Foldit Contenders Group and Void Crushers Group built the entire protein. The breakthrough will help design anti-retroviral drugs that could help combat HIV-family viruses.

The benefit of gamification

Turning serious scientific challenges, and even everyday challenges, into games is an idea that has gained traction in the last few years. Game players tend to be focused, goal-oriented and dedicated — even obsessed. By using those traits to make the world a better place, many games are “outsourcing” the grunt work of science that is too complex for computing and too time-consuming for a few people to work on. This is the second major breakthrough Foldit has created.


Nature Structural & Molecular Biology: (PDF)

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