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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

So Ace! Gamers solve scientific puzzle in 10 days After Scientists' 12 year Struggle - Entertainment

By Vinay Menon
Entertainment Reporter
Sep 19, 2011

You don’t usually associate scientific breakthroughs with video games.

But that could soon change after online gamers accurately predicted the structure of a retroviral enzyme that has baffled scientists for more than a decade.

The discovery, detailed this month in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, could have significant implications for AIDS research. It could also spark groundbreaking new projects between scientists and gamers across the planet.

“We know that humans have great pattern recognition and problem solving skills,” says Firas Khatib, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the paper.

“To our knowledge, this is the first case of a previously unsolved scientific problem that has been cracked by the online gaming community.”

Using Foldit — an online game developed in 2008 at the University of Washington Center for Game Science — gamers needed only 10 days to decipher the molecular structure of “a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus.”

To put this in perspective: scientists have spent about 12 years attempting, and failing, to solve the structure.

“This result really shows that it’s possible for video games and gamers to get to the point where they are able to make scientific contributions,” says Seth Cooper, creative director of the Center for Game Science, who co-created Foldit.

“Games are an effective tool for combining what computers and people are good at, respectively, and using that combined power to solve really hard problems. Gamers can be effectively integrated into laboratory science and we’re working on using games to design new proteins and even nanodevices.”

“The game is essentially about manipulating the structure of a protein using the tools provided within the game to obtain the lowest energy state possible, which should be that of the native structure,” explains “mimi,” a member of the Foldit Contenders Team, which is credited as one of the authors.

“This doesn’t need any biological knowledge, just an understanding of some simple rules. Many good folders are not scientists.”

More than 100,000 people have played Foldit. The solution for this problem, says Cooper, came from three players, including mimi. The gamers created a 3-D model of the enzyme. Researchers can now use the solved structure to develop antiviral drugs. And a key reason for the breakthrough, adds Khatib, is that gamers were able to approach the problem with fresh eyes.

“That is one of the advantages of the online gaming community and citizen science,” says Khatib. “They don’t have all these restrictions. They are led entirely by the score in the game. They are free and unshackled whereas all the people in the lab who work on structure prediction, we are horrible Foldit players. We have all these preconceptions, ‘Oh, protein can’t do this, it has to fold like this.’”

Foldit has also been used for cancer research and DNA manipulation. Khatib says he hopes a scientist somewhere out there who is now struggling with a protein-related problem reads the paper and is inspired to come forward with a new challenge for the global army of gamers.

Posted via email from Siobhan O'Flynn's 1001 Tales

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