When video gamers armed with the world's most powerful supercomputers take on science and its most vexing riddles, who wins? Sometimes, it's the gamers.
Humans retain an edge over computers when complex problems require intuition and leaps of insight rather than brute calculation. Savvy programmers and researchers at the University of Washington have tapped into this human "supercomputer" with Foldit, an online game that poses complex puzzles about how proteins fold, one of the hardest and most expensive problems in biology today.
"Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins," the company explains on its website. "Since proteins are part of so many diseases, they can also be part of the cure. Players can design brand new proteins that could help prevent or treat important diseases."
They've been on a tear ever since. With four publications to their name, and a host of puzzles left to solve from deadly diseases to biofuels, Foldit has proven that the concept works.
Their latest solution has resolved a problem stumping scientists for a decade. Publishing in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology on September 18 (the scientists and gamers are co-authors), researchers show how gamers provided the crucial insights to solve the structure of a protein-sniping enzyme critical for reproduction of the AIDS virus. With help from game-players' strategies, researchers revealed the enzymes' structure within three weeks and identified targets for drugs to neutralize it.
Want to discover the next cure? You can sign on to Foldit, and use your 3-D spatial abilities to manipulate amino acid chains starting simple with "One Small Clash," and work your way up to "Rubber Band Reversal." UW researchers are constantly tweaking the game design and analyzing players' strategies to come up with new answers.