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Posted by on Sep 19, 2011 in Science & Technology | 9 comments

Online Gamers Crack Challenge, Move Researchers Closer To AIDS Cure

folditIn the book Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge envisions a world where crowdsourcing is S.O.P. and “games” can be a source of public good. Today, we’re living that vision.

Over a three-week period, online gamers playing were able to decipher the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus. (The Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, M-PMV, retroviral protease causes an AIDS-like disease in monkeys.) One scientist says “they actually did it in less than 10 days” but researchers have been struggling with the problem for more than a decade.

From the Nature (subscription required) article which was published online Sunday, Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players (or download a PDF from the lead researcher):

Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.

The solution required distributive collaboration, and the players — who spanned three continents are not biochemists:

Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algorithms… Players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players to obtain the highest-scoring (lowest-energy) models. In proof-of-concept tests, Foldit players—most of whom have little or no background in biochemistry—were able to solve protein structure refinement problems in which backbone rearrangement was necessary to correctly bury hydrophobic residues.

Computation biologist David Baker (the University of Washington*) developed Foldit “as an extension to his [email protected] program, which allows Baker to use home computers around the world to do complex calculations on protein structures.”

About 600 players from 41 teams submitted more than 1.25 million solutions. Narrowing those down to 5,000, [Mariusz Jaskolski of A. Mickiewicz University in Poland and the Polish Academy of Sciences] and colleagues subjected them to a computational technique called molecular replacement (MR), which tests the models against X-ray crystallography data. For MR to work, the proposed structure has to be very close to accurate, in which case the MR calculations can help perfect the details. But previous attempts at MR for this protein had failed because the protein models were too far off the mark.

But The Contender’s proposed protein structure was a winner. “When we took [their] model, it was a beautiful fit to the X-ray data so we knew [they] had solved it,” Baker said. “We were just totally blown away. This is the first time that a long-standing scientific problem has been solved by Foldit players, or to my knowledge, any scientific gaming participants.”

The final breakthrough came from Foldit user mimi, a member of The Contenders and a science technician at a high school near Manchester, UK, who has been playing Foldit for about 3 years. She “tucked in a flap” of the protein that was sticking out, she explains, to make the protein more “globular.” But she emphasizes that “the achievement was very much a group effort,” noting that it wasn’t possible for her to tuck in the flap until others in the group had made their key adjustments to the protein’s structure.

Why multi-player games? Because we have spatial reasoning skills, according to Seth Cooper, a UW computer scientist. debuted in 2008; since then, more than 236,000 players have registered.

* Disclaimer: I teach at UW.

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  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    I pray ethical gamers be given every tangle not yet sorted. They are free in the way many of our poor researchers are not re status, competition, backstabbing, elbowing out of the way. It ought not be a roller derby. Great story Kathy and you continue in our strong prayers daily. Promise.

  • A problem that scientists spent 10 years struggling to solve, gamers solved in a mere ten days.

    That’s pretty awesome.

    Perhaps all the talk about kids spending too much time playing video games has been unwarranted.

  • Thanks, Dr E — I’m doing great and the MRI was “normal.”

    I agree — wouldn’t it be great if we could model more problems to be “played out” in a game-like environment. That was/is a promise of SecondLife — modeling the effectiveness of disaster preparedness plans, for example.

    Nick, I’m pretty sure everyone who is playing isn’t a kid. 🙂

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    that is such terrific good news Kathy about the MRI… We will continue to pray for all health to continue. I hope some day, when and if you feel it would be useful you might write a bit about your journey for us. Again, your news has lifted my heart. Go Kathy!

  • JSpencer

    Darned interesting story. Wow!

  • ShannonLeee

    I am currently working on a scientific problem with a video game designer. Computational modeling is the future of science. Crowd sourcing or presenting problems to the public in a game form might possibly take us to unimaginable discoveries.

    Think of all of the people that play online games. Give them a fun way to attack a problem and we will get amazing results.

    Kathy, I have a friend that is taking a leadership role in the medical department at UW. I hear nothing but good things about the place…and obviously there are many exceptional scientists doing great work at UW.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, Kathy. Amazing. Trying to learn a little about myself.

  • Hi, ShannonLeee — please feel free to introduce us. 🙂

    Dorian, glad you are inspired!

    If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Rainbows End, the book I referenced in the lead.

  • Dr E – I did write about it a little bit on 9-12:

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