Foldit gamers solve HIV protein puzzle


— 12:34 PM on September 19, 2011

TR readers may be familiar with protein-folding projects like Folding@home, which harness the computational power of dormant PCs (or dedicated Frankenbot farms) to perform scientific calculations. There's more than one way to fold a protein on a PC, though. A game called Foldit allows players to manipulate protein structures in real time, and gamers playing Foldit have managed to crack a troublesome enzyme structure that had puzzled scientists for 15 years.This particular monomeric protease enzyme is part of a family of retroviruses that includes HIV. According to the folks at Foldit, this is the first time gamers have been credited with solving a real scientific problem—no, the puzzles in Portal don't count.

Foldit's findings have been published (PDF) by Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, which explains things in much greater detail. A combination of human intuition and our ability to match patterns in three-dimensional space is credited for the discovery, which of course wouldn't have been possible without Foldit. The game allows players to cooperate on teams that compete with each other, and this collaborative approach also deserves some of the credit. At least three teammates contributed to the final solution for this particular protein.

Much has been said about the increasing computational horsepower available in modern PCs, but the human brain is still far superior for solving certain kinds of problems. Network a bunch of those brains together and give them a game to play, and there's no telling how many of life's mysteries can be unraveled.

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