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Online Gamers Help Solve Protein Structure

Researchers created the game Foldit to simulate protein folding and used teams of online gamers to help solve the structure of an enzyme. Cynthia Graber reports

Scientists can now include online gaming in their problem-solving arsenal. Because game players seem to have provided an answer to a scientific question that’s vexed researchers for a decade.

Scientists wanted to know the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme produced by a retrovirus similar to HIV. They haven’t been able to solve the protein structure using standard computational methods.

Now, the game—researchers developed Foldit in 2008. Teams of players fold molecules and rotate amino acids to create 3-D protein structures. Gamers get points for structure stability.

So researchers asked gamers to try to solve this particular protein. Within three weeks, the gamers found a good solution. The scientists then refined it and were able to completely determine the protein’s structure. Having the structure could inform the use of drugs to block the enzyme, and provide another tool against retroviruses, including HIV.

The researchers say that people have better spatial reasoning skills than computers—and that using both humans and machines might be a way to overcome various structural challenges. The results appear in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. [Firas Khatib et al., "Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players"] Co-authored by researchers—and a number of gamers.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.

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