Gamers Help Scientists In War On HIV/AIDS

Gamers Help Scientists In War On HIV/AIDS

Gamers, playing a game called Foldit, uncover the structure of a complex retro-viral protein structure similar to one found in HIV.

After reading a recent article in Ars Technica, my first question was, "There's a protein-folding game?" The answer, of course, is yes; it's called Foldit and it is an effort by scientists to enlist gamers' help in solving the incredible complexities of genetic proteins. Here's why. Proteins are made up of amino acids with are molecules of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. These proteins, present within genetic material, are folded in a multitude of complex ways that determines their various functions. "Due to the incredibly high number of degrees of freedom, understanding this structure is one of the hardest problems in modern science." Algorithms have helped to a certain extent, but a group of researchers created the game Foldit to enlist spatially savvy gamers in their protein folding studies. The results have been encouraging, to say the least.

Mostly non-scientist gamers have outperformed geneticists and algorithms in discovering the structure of a protein in the Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus (MP-MV). The retrovirus is analogous to HIV in humans, ultimately leading to AIDS in primates. Discovering its structure is a crucial step in development of antiretroviral drugs that could be used to treat HIV in humans. This has prompted scientists from he University of Washington to join Foldit groups to model the crystal structure of the MP-MV protein, which is responsible for viral growth.

Initiating study of the model, Foldit players were given ten incorrect models of the protein. As days progressed models became increasingly more accurate until a player known as "spvincent" created one better than all the rest. Two other players improved on it and within days the protein structure was cracked. The success of this has prompted some professional papers to be written about Foldit. One of them will take many of the more complex protein structures developed by Foldit players and compare them to those created by "state-of-the-art" algorithms designed for the same purpose. The other paper's topic will be some of the more incredible discoveries made on Foldit, including a new synthetic protein that was previously unknown.

Foldit's success has opened a whole new door for science and web-based collaboration via game networks. If the complexities of science and our natural world can be translated into a video game, and people could be put to work solving these scientific puzzles, the possibilities for advancement and progress are very promising. From protein folding to environmentally sustainable engineering to swarm theory; some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs may be a simple game platform away.