Gamers Crack Molecular Puzzle: The Power of Crowdsourcing

There’s a technique within the scientific community known as crowd-sourcing, the theory works on the premise that three heads are better than one. It’s often used by advertising moguls and Hollywood execs to find the next summer hit, but occasionally it’s used to solve some of the bigger puzzles in life. Today is one of those days, and a fantastic day for gamers as a whole.

This particular problem, that caused scientists such a headache for so long, revolved around determining the structure of an enzyme that, once discovered, could help defend against the AIDS virus. The issue for scientists is that the structure of the retroviral protease found in rhesus monkeys, which happens to be the molecule in question, is far more complex than they imagined. So instead of turning to a super-computer to solve the problem, they turned to the internet instead.

As a rule of thumb humans have very developed spacial reasoning skills, something that computers can’t quite handle at the moment. For this reason people were the perfect choice, but how best to get them to solve the problem? Through a game of course.

An internet based game called Foldit was used, the program allows people to manipulate the structure of a virtual molecule that fits all the natural laws of molecular science. Players are scored on the energy efficiency and elegance of the structure, this reqard mechanism encourages players to find a more natural solution to the problem. In the case of the monkey-virus puzzle, it took a mere 10 days to find the perfect solution.

“Standard autobuilding and structure refinement methods showed within hours that the solution was almost certainly correct,”

This breakthrough could herald a new approach to the way that AIDS vaccines target the virus, and could potentially save millions of lives. Even better it shows that video games can be a valid scientific tool. The game itself may not be the most high tech, but it most certainly does it’s job. If you feel like taking a swing at the next major problem put forward to Foldit players then you can try here, or you can head here to watch MSNBC report the story.

The leader of one of the groups responsible for solving the problem had this to say:

“We were all very excited to hear that we had helped to find the answer to this crystal form, especially since it had been outstanding so long and other methods had been unsuccessful. The feeling of having done something that could make a significant contribution to research in this field is very special and unexpected. Foldit players have achieved a number of successes so far, and I hope we will go on to make many more”

Remember, next time somebody comments to you that “video games will get you nowhere in life!“. They’re just plain wrong.

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