A research paper published Sunday by the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology details how the online game Foldit successfully mapped a protein-cutting enzyme from a particular AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. This enzyme apparently helps the virus spread and to counteract it, its exact molecular structure had to be mapped. This task had been impossible until crowd sourcing came along.
University of Washington chemist Firas Khatib and computer scientist Seth Cooper handled the Foldit program's design and implementation. In a statement issued to the press, Cooper said that people are what truly made the difference in solving this monumental problem.
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans."
Khatib spoke with Seattle Weekly about the project last night, saying that this breakthrough was "huge" for science more than for aids because it could prove to be helpful to researchers throughout the world who could use the extra help with complex problems.
"This is the first case that were aware of where online gamers solved a scientific problem that hadn't been able to be cracked by all scientific methods developed," Khatib says. "My big hope is that other scientists with challenging problems they can't solve and have been banging their heads over for years will come to us and say 'can you help?'"
Khatib says that Foldit's success comes mostly from being an online competitive game. The game has around 236,000 registered players since it launched in 2008. By putting real-time scores and rankings that change based on how well-designed players make their molecular structures, the program takes advantage of the competitive nature of gaming to accomplish something real.
"If we had just posted it as 'hey, can you help us?' I think we would have gotten a few volunteers and some would have stuck around," Khatib says. "But the fact that there is this competitive aspect, that unleashes a lot more motivation."
The next step, says researchers, is for Foldit players to create new genetic structures related to the Flu virus.
"We want to have players design a protein that will inhibit the flu virus," Khatib says. "This is just the start."
Source: Seattle Weekly