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Gamers Solve a Science Problem

Dr. Firas Khatib was one of the UW protein biologists who tapped into the science discovery skills of Foldit game players.

Dr. Firas Khatib

From the Univeristy of Washington: video gamers have helped scientist solve a problem that had stymied the scientists. (HT: Messiah College computer scientist David Owen via Twitter) Here is the intro to the article:

Gamers have solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme whose configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade. The gamers achieved their discovery by playing Foldit, an online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.

After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they called in the Foldit players. The scientists challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme. They did it in only three weeks.

This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Intensive research is under way to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like.

Dr. Firas Khatib was one of the UW protein biologists who tapped into the science discovery skills of Foldit game players.

“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said Dr. Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry. Khatib is a researcher in the protein structure lab of Dr. David Baker, professor of biochemistry.

Remarkably, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine and, within a few days, determine the enzyme’s structure. Equally amazing, surfaces on the molecule stood out as likely targets for drugs to de-active the enzyme.

You can read the rest here. It is interesting to see scientists rely on human intuition to jump ahead where automated (read: computer aided) techniques had failed. It is also interesting that this might imply that gamers might learn skills in problem solving and strategy that could help them in “real life” settings.

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