HIV Enzyme Problem Solved Using Online Puzzle Game
Nick Gilbert
at 12:00 AM 19 Sep 2020
Comments 0
An example of Fold It in action
Health // 

It turns out that gaming really can help cure the world's ills, after online problem-solvers helped decypher the structure of an enzyme that may hold clues to fighting HIV.

The structure of the enzyme has been a mystery to scientists for a decade. Users of the online service Foldit cracked the protein code in three weeks, as part of a research project run by the University of Washington.

Foldit creates 3D structures out of various proteins, and allows people to directly manipulate these models in order to learn more about the structure, and hopefully suggest new ways to attack retroviruses with medicines and other treatments

The secret behind the lightning turnaround was the blending the raw number-crunching power of computers with a human's intuitive understanding of 3D space, both necessary ingredients for understanding the chemical properties of proteins.

"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," said Foldit co-creator Seth Cooper in a press release.

"Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."

Scientists traditionally have  had to rely on microscopes that are limited to depicting flat images of proteins, as opposed to the intricate 3D balls that computers allow us to model in real time.

According to University of Washington's Firas Khatib, "The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."

A report on the project, co-authored by Khatib and other contributers from UW and universities in Poland and the Czech Republic, has been published in the latest edition of the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology journal. 

It even comes complete with credits for the gamers who helped crack the code.


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