September 20, 2011
Who says video games can't better the world?
It took just three weeks for gamers to solve a problem that had been puzzling HIV researchers for more than a decade. Playing an online game called Foldit, using simple controls and commands, players worked to map out the three-dimensional structures of different proteins.
University of Washington biochemist Firas Khatib enlisted the help of Foldit players, who went on to discover a protein structure belonging to the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative to HIV that causes AIDS in monkeys. Discover Magazine reported:
These viruses create many of their proteins in one big block. They need to be cut apart, and the viruses use a scissor enzyme -- a protease -- to do that. Many scientists are trying to find drugs that disable the proteases. If they don't work, the virus is hobbled -- it's like a mechanic that cannot remove any of her tools from their box.
To disable M-PMV's protease, we need to know exactly what it looks like. Like real scissors, the proteases come in two halves that need to lock together in order to work. If we knew where the halves joined together, we could create drugs that prevent them from uniting. But until now, scientists have only been able to discern the structure of the two halves together. They have spent more than ten years trying to solve structure of a single isolated half, without any success.
The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein's final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.
The beauty of this approach is human intuition. Players were able to take "wrong turns" to set up future moves that would pay off in the long run, something computers are not adept at. What's more, most of the gamers had little or no science background and were merely playing to help contribute, something known as "citizen science." With this innovative approach at identifying protein structures, we're one step closer to putting the final nail in the HIV coffin.
To learn more about the science behind Foldit and how to participate, visit the game's website.
Warren Tong is the research editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.
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