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Scientists pleasantly 'shocked' by skills of Foldit gamers

How gamers devised state-of-the-art algorithms playing Foldit, a protein-folding game that has advanced HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer's research.

It's not every day that a news item details the intelligence of the masses, lurking in the brains of unassuming passersby, just waiting to be uncovered for the greater good. But when it comes to the massively multiplayer online game Foldit, this is precisely the story, and it keeps getting better.

Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

Launched in 2008 at the University of Washington, the protein folding game first made news for its potential to use the collective brainpower of gamers everywhere to unlock the fundamental mysteries of certain diseases. Then gamers began to prove this potential, solving various protein riddles that further our understanding of cancer, Alzheimer's, and most recently AIDS.

Today the researchers behind Foldit are publishing a paper detailing exactly how these gamers unraveled the structure of a protein central to AIDS research in just 10 days--a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that scientists had worked on the problem for a decade. The Foldit researchers report that they are "shocked" by the level of sophistication involved in solving the problem.

"We enabled players to create and improve each other's best recipes to play the game," says Zoran Popovic, principal investigator of the Foldit Project, in a news release. "Once we looked at the variety and creativity of these recipes, we were shocked to find state-of-the-art algorithms."

The group has been studying the gamers' most effective strategies to understand and memorialize these complex algorithms (the so-called "recipes") and apply them to even more scientific problems.

Specifically, the team analyzed the work of 721 gamers over the course of three months, studying their play in detail. Not only did the gamers play the game, but they also improved how to play it, devising new ways to create, edit, share, and rate game-playing recipes.

Blue Fuse, for instance, is the name for one of the most popular recipes in Foldit. Developed by a player named Vertex, Blue Fuse scored high marks for using as little energy as possible--a protein feature the researchers refer to as "energy optimization." Perhaps not incidentally, Blue Fuse turns out to be strikingly similar to Fast Relax, a still-unpublished algorithm developed by a scientist at the University of Washington's Baker Lab.

"I shared BF fully because Foldit is so much more than a game," writes Vertex in an email. "The competition is serious and fierce, but we are also trying to improve the understanding of huge biological proteins. We collaborate and compete at the same time. Blue Fuse spawned from Acid Tweeker ... and now has many children of its own. To 'Fuze' has even become a Foldit verb. And the next flash of inspiration can come from literally anyone."

Scientists and gamers working side by side. A nice little Utopia, right here on Planet Earth.