Online Gamers Crack Scientific Puzzle

By Joe Rojas-Burke

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -Scientists were stumped.

For more than a decade, biochemists ould not fully decipher the structure of a key protein, called a protease, that retroviruses such as HIV need to multiply. Knowing it would be a key step toward developing better antiviral drugs.

So University of Washington scientists unleashed an avid group of online gamers. Within three furious weeks of play, pitting teams of non-scientists against each other, the gamers delivered the first accurate model of a retroviral protease. Knowing the structure is a key step toward finding better anti-viral drugs.

“It’s the power of citizen science,” says Firas Khatib, a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of UW biochemistry professor David Baker. Baker’s laboratory developed the game, called Foldit, about three years ago, believing that they could tap some of the brain power that puzzle-loving humans pour into computer games.

There are many examples of crowdsourcing in science, but most involve citizens helping out with drudgery, such as submitting data on animal sightings or running distributed computing programs on a home computer.

Foldit players are providing answers beyond the capabilities of experts in the field.

Solving protein structures remains one of the most difficult problems in science. Proteins take shape from a strand of building blocks, called amino acids. Genes tell a cell’s protein-making machinery the order for assembling the building blocks in an orderly long strand. When a complex protein, such as an HIV protease, comes off the assembly line, it coils and folds to form an intricate molecular machine. Imagine, say, a sewing machine self-assembling from hundreds of parts arrayed on a string.

Because of the vast number of possible moves during protein folding, even the most advanced super computers still can’t reliably predict the structure of large proteins. Foldit players use their intuition and threedimensional problem-solving skills to figure out likely protein structures. Teams earn points by finding the most chemically stable shapes.

“Competitive social interaction is a very strong driving force,” Baker says.

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Posted by on Nov 1st, 2011 and filed under Literature & Electronic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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