Remember SETI@home? It enables people to put their spare computer cycles to work in discovering intelligent life beyond Earth. (And with election season coming to an end, it's pretty clear that not much is left here.) The SETI project is a pretty cool and relatively simple computer task.
Inversely, things like mapping protein folding, which is essential to understanding how a particular protein works (and thus helping to target it with drugs), can be a very hard problem for computers but not so hard for humans. If someone could make it easy for communities to contribute to mapping protein folding, we could get a long way toward fighting AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's, for starters.
Enter Foldit, a SETI@home-like project for protein mapping where humans are the computers and disease-fighting research becomes a game.
In Foldit, players manipulate on-screen images of protein chains and try to predict their patterns. The researchers then hope to take this human predictive ability and teach it to computers to develop drugs that will attack the proteins involved in a range of diseases. According to the site:
The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical because there are so many degrees of freedom. Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
Sure, you could be playing FIFA or Spider Solitaire, but who benefits there? Foldit is a way to do well while having fun. Give it a try.