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Foldit game leads to AIDS research breakthrough

Gamers help biochemists understand the structure of a protein that is key to the growth of HIV in about 10 days.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Foldit challenges gamers to predict and design the structures of proteins in the hopes of better understanding how they work. Foldit/University of Washington

In 2008, University of Washington scientists released the game Foldit, hoping a sort of critical mass of gamers would mess around with proteins and, in the process, uncover some of their intrigue. (We have more than 100,000 types of proteins in our bodies alone.)

Last year, we checked in on the project's progress, and principal investigator Zoran Popovic said that some 60,000 people worldwide had taken on the challenge. Popovic hoped the initial results his team reported on last year would convince those on the sidelines that scientific discovery games could actually lead to important breakthroughs.

Well, now Foldit is officially more than just a neat idea.

In a matter of 10 days, gamers were able to do what biochemists have been trying to do for a decade: decipher the structure of a protein called retroviral protease, an enzyme that is key to the way HIV multiplies. Being able to see how this protein builds will likely help scientists develop drugs to halt that growth.

"Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein," the researchers report this week in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. "Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs."

Almost as remarkably, few of the players who folded their way to this discovery have any kind of background in biochemistry. But since there are millions of ways that the bonds between the atoms in an enzyme's molecules can twist and turn, calling on the masses for this kind of challenge makes a lot of sense.

"People have spatial reasoning skills--something computers are not yet good at," Foldit's lead designer, Seth Cooper, said in a statement. "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans."

Foldit gamers have also helped scientists in cancer and Alzheimer's research. So if you're looking for a game that can double as good volunteer work, go play. You just might help change the world.