Gamers team solves molecular puzzle that baffled scientists

Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.

“This is one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS,” Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington, told me. Khatib is the lead author of a research paper on the project…

The feat, which was accomplished using a collaborative online game called Foldit, is also one giant leap for citizen science — a burgeoning field that enlists Internet users to look for alien planets, decipher ancient texts and do other scientific tasks that sheer computer power can’t accomplish as easily.

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” Seth Cooper, a UW computer scientist who is Foldit’s lead designer and developer, explained in a news release. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”

For more than a decade, an international team of scientists has been trying to figure out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. Such enzymes, known as retroviral proteases, play a key role in the virus’ spread — and if medical researchers can figure out their structure, they could conceivably design drugs to stop the virus in its tracks…

That’s where Foldit plays a role. The game is designed so that players can manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower…

The challenge fit the current capabilities of the Foldit game, so Khatib and his colleagues put the puzzle out there for Foldit’s teams to work on. “This was really kind of a last-ditch effort,” he recalled. “Can the Foldit players really solve it?”

They could. “They actually did it in less than 10 days,” Khatib said.

RTFA for lots of details. Especially make it through to the end with an email comment from one of the lead gamers known simple as “mimi”. So many aspects of this research are interesting.

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