"You can explore things that look crazy. When we first saw this particular design we thought it looked crazy," says Donald Hilvert, a biochemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who is collaborating with the researchers to further refine the protein through directed evolution.
There are no immediate applications for the particular Diels-Alder reaction that this enzyme catalyses, and, compared with naturally occurring enzymes that catalyze other reactions, it's not very active. But it marks a milestone in showing what crowdsourcing research can achieve.
Baker is now looking toward more useful targets. The team reported last year that they had designed small protein inhibitors that bind to and block the 1918 pandemic influenza virus4. "Now Foldit players are working to make more potent inhibitors," Baker said. "Those are exciting because those could be drugs."