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For years a complex biochemical problem related to AIDS research had beguiled scientists worldwide.
That was until some UW researchers got wise to the art of crowd-sourcing.
Now, thanks to a program called Foldit, which makes molecular coding into a competitive online video game, an important piece of the AIDS-cure puzzle has been solved.
A research paper published Sunday by the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology details how online users of Foldit successfully mapped a protein-cutting enzyme from a particular AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. This enzyme helps the virus spread and counteracting it relies on mapping its exact molecular structure--a task that until now had been too monumental for scientists to accomplish.
Here's a screenshot of the protein structure that solved the rhesus-monkey problem.
University of Washington
Firas Khatib, a UW biochemist, led the project from the chemistry perspective, while Seth Cooper, a UW computer scientist, handled the Foldit program's design and implementation.
In a statement sent to reporters, Cooper said of the program:
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans."
Khatib, meanwhile, spoke with Seattle Weekly about the project last night.
He says that the breakthrough is a huge accomplishment for science in general more than for AIDS research specifically, and that it could help researchers worldwide refrain from pulling out as much of their hair.
"This is the first case that were aware of where online gamers solved a scientific problem that hadn't been able to be cracked by all scientific methods developed," Khatib says. "My big hope is that other scientists with challenging problems they can't solve, and have been banging their heads over for years, will come to us and say 'Can you help?' "
Khatib says that Foldit's success is not owed to simply being an online game, but being an online competitive game. Some 236,000 players have registered for Foldit since it launched in 2008, and by putting real-time scores and rankings that change depending on how well-designed the players make their molecular structures, the program taps into the competitive nature of gamers.
"If we had just posted it as 'Hey, can you help us?', I think we would have gotten a few volunteers and some would have stuck around," Khatib says. "But the fact that there is this competitive aspect, that unleashes a lot more motivation."
The next step for Foldit players is going to be not just mapping existing genetic structures, but creating new ones. And one of the world's most common ailments is in the cross-hairs. "We want to have players design a protein that will inhibit the flu virus," Khatib says. "This is just the start."
Here's a great video that shows the ins and outs of Foldit.