There is a game in cyberspace that has been causing quite a stir among gamers and scientists.
Foldit is a worldwide online community that enables users to take part in the biological puzzle-solving problem of protein folding. The point of the game is to determine the best possible protein structure scientists can use in developing cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS.
In 2008, David Baker, a biochemistry professor at the University of Washington, was searching for the next best thing in computation. His existing software, Rosetta@home, was incapable of completing the protein-folding puzzles. Baker believed humans could do it in a fraction of the time.
Baker collaborated with a group of biochemistry and computer science professors at UW to launch Foldit, a computer game that puts people at the center of protein folding with all the advantages of video game entertainment.
Foldit generated hype earlier this year when a group of players decoded the crystal structure of Mason-Pfizer Monkey Virus retroviral protease that had been causing AIDS in rhesus monkeys. Scientists had been unable to decipher the correct protein for 15 years. It took 10 days for the Foldit players to concoct the accurate model. The Foldit website described this discovery as the first time online gamers had solved a long-standing scientific problem.
“I hoped Foldit would help me find protein-folding prodigies and it’s fantastic to see it come true.” Baker said in a 2009 interview with Wired magazine.
Dr. Tom Huxford, an associate professor of the department of chemistry and biology at San Diego State, offered his expertise about the subject.
“David Baker is the poster child and rock star for protein engineering, but what is happening here with Foldit isn’t scientifically revolutionary,” Huxford said. “Baker is putting the couch potatoes to do the work that one single computer could do in isolation.”
According to the Foldit website, determining possible protein structures consumes a lot of money and time for scientists. The video game has turned what Huxford described as boring work into an exhilarating competition to fold the best proteins.
Many Foldit users do not have a background in biochemistry or any experience with protein folding. A 13-year-old boy by the username of “Cheese” was one of the top Foldit players to discover the correct fold of the M-PMV retroviral protease.
With a click of the mouse, Cheese and his Foldit competitors altered a 3-D image of a protein by grabbing, bending, wiggling and attaching the chain of amino acids to the sides in order to help stabilize the protein. Players receive points based on the stability of the protein fold. Users of Foldit are able to form teams and work collectively to solve a protein puzzle.
“The possibilities to fold a protein are astronomical,” SDSU biochemistry professor Dr. John Love said. “I’m sure the players do not completely understand the mathematical terms of the game, but maybe one day Cheese will be the next genius to write computer software for science.”
Baker and his team continue to expand the game by adding features such as symmetry and the option to design new proteins. However, neither Love nor Huxford are confident scientific video games will be the future of curing diseases.
“Foldit is less groundbreaking for structural biology than it is for psychology,” Huxford said. “It is very interesting what has happened, but I don’t believe this is the way we will study diseases in the future.”