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.

Always hang onto evidence: Coppers arrest man in 1983 murder


DA Gerry Leone initiated the cold case program after taking office in 2007

State Police arrested and charged a Holyoke man last night with a 1983 slaying, moving to close an investigation that had been open for 28 years.

The Middlesex district attorney’s office said Shawn Marsh, 46, of Holyoke, had been indicted by a Middlesex grand jury and arrested by State Police in connection with the homicide after evidence against him emerged through new fingerprint testing technology…

The case dates to Aug. 22, 1983, when Malden police, responding to reports of gunshots, found Rodney Wyman, of Simsbury, Conn., suffering from a gunshot wound at the Town Line Motel in Malden. Wyman was rushed to Malden Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Authorities said an immediate investigation into the case yielded no arrests at the time because of a lack of evidence…

The technology, including a national fingerprint identification database, had not been developed at the time of the homicide. The system was launched by the FBI in 1999 and contains the fingerprints, criminal history, and physical description of more than 66 million criminal subjects. It is the largest biometric database in the world…

Authorities alleged that the defendant and another suspect, who has yet to be identified, shot Wyman after breaking into his hotel room with the intention of robbing him.

Bravo. I’m enough of a CSI-freak as it is. But, re-opening and solving cold cases like this one are a special benefit of advances in forensic science.

Parents face manslaughter charge in latest case against faith-healers

A couple prayed and rubbed olive oil on their sick infant rather than seek medical care for the dying boy, prosecutors argued in the latest criminal case against members of an Oregon church that believes in faith healing.

Dale and Shannon Hickman are accused of manslaughter in the death of their son David, who was born prematurely in 2009 with underdeveloped lungs. The boy developed a bacterial infection and lived for less than nine hours…

The Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ church, a Clackamas County church that practices faith healing and rejects doctors. The trial is the fourth time in recent years that members have faced criminal accusations that they let their children get seriously ill or die.

When David’s skin turned ashen and he could barely breathe, the Hickmans did not call for help, prosecutor Mike Regan said during opening statements Wednesday. Instead, he said, Dale Hickman anointed the baby with olive oil, a common church ritual for treating the ill.

They were never going to call — ever,” Regan said. “Failure to act is a crime…”

The Hickmans’ lawyers said witnesses to the boy’s birth will testify that the baby showed no sign of distress until minutes before his death. And even if the Hickmans had called 911, the infant would have died before help arrived, they said. The same defense used by church members in previous trials.

The couple was being tried for their faith, said lawyer Mark Cogan.

“You, ladies and gentlemen, are our protection against tyranny,” Cogan told jurors.

The tyranny of self-delusion, of religious ideology, letting superstition govern your behavior instead of ethics, reason, often leads to confrontation with common law. As the prosecutor, Mike Regan, said – Failure to act is a crime.

We have a responsibility to the society within which we live and function to act in the broadest sense. Letting a child die with no reasonable attempt to save that small life is not excused by ideology.

Egypt and Ethiopia review collaboration on Nile river dam


Meles Zenawi and Essam Sharaf
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

Ethiopia and Egypt have agreed to review the impact of a planned $4.8 billion Nile river dam, which Addis Ababa announced in March, in a bid to open a “new chapter” in once-strained relations.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Egyptian counterpart, Essam Sharaf, made the announcement at a joint news conference following talks in Cairo on Saturday. “We have agreed to quickly establish a tripartite team of technical experts to review the impact of the dam that is being built in Ethiopia,” Zenawi said. Experts from Sudan will also be part of the team.

Sharaf said Ethiopia’s planned construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam “could be a source of benefit” – an apparent change in tone by Egypt’s new rulers on what has been a highly contentious issue.

We can make the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam something useful,” Sharaf said. “This dam, in conjunction with the other dams, can be a path for development and construction between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt…”

Zenawi’s visit to Cairo was the first by an Ethiopian official since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February…

The dam is planned for the Blue Nile river in northwestern Ethiopia, a few kilometres from the Ethiopia–Sudan border.

The dam is designed to have an installed capacity of 5250 MW, which is threefold of the 1885.8 MW installed capacity of the 12 currently operational hydro-power plants of the nation.

Bravo. It ain’t easy – it ain’t ever easy to negotiate treaties over natural resources especially water rights. Cripes, we’re still governed by water rights here in New Mexico that go back to Spanish colonial times. Technically, it’s against New Mexico law to collect rainwater after it falls from the skies — unless used by a farmer.

That these nations are willing to discuss and consider collaboration is a step forward.

U.S. tax-evasion probe adds Israeli banks to the target list


Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

The U.S. pursuit of offshore tax evaders is widening to include Israel, where U.S. authorities are scrutinizing three of Israel’s largest banks over suspicions their Swiss outposts helped American clients evade taxes, people briefed on the matter said.

The banks under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal tax division are Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi le-Israel BM and Mizrahi-Tefahot, the sources said.

The shift to Israel from Switzerland, for years the main focus of the Justice Department’s campaign against offshore private banking secrecy, signals the broadening of a landmark probe by the agency that began in 2007 with UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank…

The scrutiny of the three Swiss branches of the Israeli banks is at an early stage and has not reached the level of that of Credit Suisse, which received a target letter from the Justice Department in July, or of HSBC Holdings, a major European bank, and Basler Kantonalbank, a Swiss cantonal bank, said the people briefed on the matter…

American officials are concerned that the…banks appear to have accepted hidden money from American clients who fled UBS in the wake of its scrutiny and assertions by Swiss officials that offshore tax evasion would not be tolerated under the cloak of Swiss bank secrecy rules…

RTFA for notes on connections.

Executives of banks collaborating in tax evasion and tax fraud have to be sleeping a wee bit less sound. Maybe keeping a bye-bye-bag packed and ready to go. I hope.