Online gaming meets the laboratory in Foldit, a virtual way to solve real-world biomedical puzzles.
Last year, two teams of gamers co-authored a paper describing an HIV-related protein that had long stumped scientists. Not only did they puzzle out the protein’s elusive shape, but they did it in just three weeks. Their scientific method: play a multiplayer online game called Foldit.
Protein folding is one of the hardest computational problems in biology. The get-it-done chemicals of life, proteins power muscles, transport signals through the brain and defend against germs. A protein’s function partly depends on how its long chains of chemical building blocks fold into a compact and chemically stable shape. And determining that shape can lead to new treatments for diseases such as cancer, Aids and Alzheimer’s.
Surprisingly, it seems that teams of human beings motivated by curiosity and competition might do this better than the most sophisticated computers. To play, gamers wiggle, shake and pull digital models of proteins into new shapes; the more compact the shape, the higher the score. People who co-operate tend to be most effective. “You don’t find many soloists among the top scorers,” notes Doreen DeSorbo, a Web designer and a global moderator for the game. Now, Foldit players have been asked to design a new protein – one that will bind to a fl u virus and stop it in its tracks. Get started by downloading the game software at fold.it/portal/.
Foldit players manipulate protein chains using moves such as these:
Rebuild Tests alternative shapes for tough protein segments.
Wiggle Settles the chain to com pact it, like shaking uncooked pasta in a box.
Shake Jiggles the protein’s side chains so they don’t bump each other.
Rubber band Creates a link that draws two sections together during a wiggle.
Freeze Immobilises just one part of a protein.
Tweak Rotates a main component so that the side chains face in a new direction.
Pull Lets a player move any part of the protein.
Undo A beginner’s best friend.