Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.
One of the problems with studying tiny proteins is that even if scientists know the genetic code for the protein (its recipe), there are still hundreds of thousands of ways the protein could fold up into its physical shape.
In this case, scientists wanted to know the shape of one of the proteins in a retrovirus, the same type of virus as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. By finding out the shape of the protein, they might be able to design a medicine that could defeat the virus. But the researchers didn’t have the time or computing power to test out all the possibilities.
So they turned the job over to online gamers!
That’s where Foldit plays a role. The game is designed so that players can manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower.
By working together and building on each other’s models, the gamers were able to solve the mystery in about 10 days.
This isn’t the only time individual computer users have helped advance scientific research. In addition to Foldit, you can:
- install a screen saver on your computer that search for space aliens (SETI@home)
- look for planets in other star systems
- study climate change
- measure the Milky Way
- discover genetic diseases
- and many others.
Image and quotation source: MSNBC Cosmic Log
Thanks to Mrs. Bornmann for the link!