19 09 2011

This is a most enjoyable headline: “Online gamers crack AIDS enzyme puzzle”. Now, I didn’t get this until after several reads of several articles, because I am a thick-skulled artsy type whose only knowledge of science comes in the form of dodgy chemistry jokes. I would tell you one now, but after racking my brains all the good ones argon.

Why, why did I just type that?

Anyways, it would appear that turning complex research processes into games and then outsourcing them to the largest laboratory in the world, the internet, creates some fairly startling results. Foldit, a game created by the University of Washington in 2008, tasks players with unfolding chains of amino acids, speeding things up a little by turning the whole thing into a competitive game with the object being to create the most efficient structure. I think. The structure of one particular subject, a monomeric protease enzyme (found in retroviruses, which includes HIV), has eluded scientists for a decade. It seems that research computers lacked the spatial reasoning required to crack the puzzle. Fortunately, humans are, for once, much better than computers at something, and players of the game produced an accurate model of the enzyme in three weeks.

Now, most of that last paragraph was copied wholesale from this article at the Sydney Morning Herald website (ooh, a non-games news source!), since those at gaming sites didn’t explain things as well, but if I can’t understand the science behind all this I can well understand that this news ‘provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs’, as the study based on this research says. There’s a good deal more to the story than this, but the outcome of it all is something quietly inspiring. Good job, Foldit players.




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