Gamers solve complex structural biochemical problems.


Online games come in many guises. They range from the addictive fantastic World of Warcraft to those quirky little games linked to your Facebook page like Happy Farm which boasts nearly 230 million players including as many as 20 million active players on any given day. Clearly there is a lot of time being wasted gaming online. The issue is considered serious enough that workplaces and schools are adopting policies to cope with the problem.

This article is published in Trinity News 

But now one online game, Foldit, is making all the headlines for the right reasons, and not because some Korean guy died while playing it for 46 hours straight having subsided solely on Red Bull.

Remarkably, Foldit and its loyal following of gamers have solved the molecular structure of a protein that is key to the maturation and proliferation of HIV. We all know how devastating and important a global disease HIV is, but just to drill it home – according to the WHO the pandemic is estimated to kill 1-2 million people world wide each year. As an online gamer I for one would be far more inclined to brag about my achievements and high scores if there was a real world impact, such as … I don’t know … curing HIV infection!

Gamers spend a short period of orientation in the game as would be expected for any computer game. As the player gets more confident and skilled and the points start racking up the tasks get more difficult. Despite this being based on complicated scientific principles the game evolves in the same way as most online games, using tried and tested reward based methods of luring gamers in and getting them hooked.

The protein structure solved by the gamers is called Mason Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease. Suffice it to say that a key problem in HIV research has been solving the crystal structure of the inactive version of this protein so that potential drugs might be manufactured to combat the development of AIDS. Whilst 15 years of research by traditional methods have proven fruitless, the online protein folding game Foldit, and its small army of gamers, has astounded biochemists and successfully predicted the structure.

But the success of Foldit has ramifications far beyond this initial HIV related finding. For many this represents the holy grail of the World Wide Web. It is true power by numbers. Foldit has clearly demonstrated how gamers can be put to work to solve important problems that stump expert but individual research teams and predictive computer modelling programs. If you put a million Mason Pfizer monkeys at a million computers then eventually one will come up with a successful doctoral thesis – that kind of idea – but don’t tell the gamers they are the monkeys.

It is now hoped that a proverbial flood gate has opened such that development of many more academic based games might occur. Perplexing problems from many avenues of scientific endeavour could be addressed by online gamers. Only tens of thousands of gamers were required to solve the HIV protein structure. Imagine what the World of Warcraft community could do if they quested, not to find a magical sword, but to cure a disease.

The designers of Foldit realised that the power of online gamers is truly massive. They report their findings this month in the prestigious academic research journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Their online gamers used their innate 3D problem solving skills to solve protein structure refinement problems that were later verified by the traditional lab based method of x ray crystallography. The full scientific article can be accessed from the fold.it website.

The website states that this is the first example of an online game, or more correctly, online gamers solving a complicated scientific problem. It is made all the more impressive when considered that very few of the gamers had any detailed prior knowledge of biochemical or structural biology. Structural biologists might spend years, even entire careers in the pursuit of accurate crystal structures for important proteins. That the same end can be achieved in a fraction of the time, and with none of the expense of complicated scientific lab work, is an incredible development both for structural biology and for online gaming.

In the pipelines there are many more protein structures the Foldit gamers want to solve including as well as designing entirely new proteins to perform industrial jobs. Think enzymes that can be used to mop up atmospheric carbon dioxide or industrial waste, or proteins that are specifically toxic to pathogenic viruses or bacteria. The possibilities are endless.

The Foldit team have not only solved a protein structure, they have also made science fun and accessible which is something scientists have long struggled with. Attracting young people into scientific careers is not a simple task. But with the millions of people participating in online games, this could be an innovative recruiting tool.

Whilst solving the crystal structure of the HIV protease protein is an admirable achievement, it is the harnessing of the massive multiplayer online gaming community that is the real achievement here.

So next time your parents, your boss, or your partner reprimand you for wasting time playing online games, you can respond ‘Just ten more minutes Mum, I’m only one level away from winning the Nobel prize!”

photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ via photopin cc

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