Gamers Redesign Protein That Stumped Scientists

Folding: it's detestable and boring, as any Gap employee can tell you. But it's also a totally fun thing you can do in a video game! And today it's particularly exciting because players of the online game Foldit have redesigned a protein, and their work is published in the science journal Nature Biotechnology.

It seems nobler than shooting people in the face, somehow. Granted, Foldit attracts a unique kind of gamer who enjoys obsessing over biological protein folding patterns. Proteins get their function from the way they are folded into coils like in the image above. When the amino acids in a protein interact, they create that coiled, three-dimensional structure. Scientists can manipulate the structure to make the protein more efficient. In Foldit, designs that create the most efficient proteins garner the highest scores.

University of Washington in Seattle scientists Zoran Popovic, director of the centre for Game Science, and biochemist David Baker developed Foldit (which is different from [email protected], Stanford software that lets people donate their idle computer processing power to create a protein-folding supercomputer). By playing it, at-home gamers have redesigned a protein for the first time, and they did it better and faster than scientists who have trained their entire careers to build better proteins. Justin Siegel, a biophysicist in Baker's group told Scientific American:

I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn't do it. Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don't fully understand how they did it.

Here's how it works: Researchers send a series of puzzles to Foldit's 240,000 registered users. The scientists sift through the results for the best designs and take those into the lab for real-life testing. They combed through 180,000 designs to get to the version of the protein published today. The paper details an enzyme that thanks to the crowdsourced redesign is 18-fold more active than the original version.

Now for the anticlimactic part: this particular enzyme doesn't really have any practical uses. But the researchers say it's a proof of concept, and future Foldit designs will be more useful. In fact, Baker has fed players a protein that blocks the flu virus that led to the 1918 pandemic — and their puzzle solving for this one could lead to an actual drug.

[Nature via Scientific American]

Image: Foldit

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    And someone said gaming is useless.

    I wonder how they're dealing with the intellectual property in the protein designs. Presumably the EULA grants design ownership to the university - I really do hope that any new designs which are actually useful will be made available for a modest fee, rather than gouging the market for whatever it will bear.

    The funny "spin" on the story is that the gamers are better at this than trained scientists, but that's not actually the case at all.
    The scientists are using the "infinite" money approach. The gamers are just monkeys here.

      I think you meant "...monkey approach.", and yeah I think you're right. Just a bunch of brainless chimps trying random combinations.

        I did. Thanks :)
        My typing fingers seem to have a bit of a monkey approach themselves. :(

    it all comes down to the incentives psychology had proven time and time again that money is not a big enough incentive for one to create great thing and the incentive with games is to compete with our peers. image if you were to apply this template to things like the traffic issues in certain city's. have them compete to find the fast system for traffic lights and the like and I am certain that there are many other things that could benefit from it

    That's awesome! And hopefully it will free up the scientists from doing boring iterations and let them apply critical thinking a bit more! I mean how bad would you feel if you wasted two years on something only to have someone else work it out in a few months...?

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