As here is a working example of what we’ve waxed about here before as the players of an online protein-folding game named appropriately “Foldit” have outperformed the white jacketed scientists by discovering the structure of a protein involved in the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus. As this particular virus is also a “retrovirus” much like HIV, which causes AIDS in both monkeys and apes. As developing a better understanding of its structure will aid researchers in developing improved antiretroviral drugs that can fight HIV. However the interworkings of this virus has held its mystery for well over a decade including having eluded the best efforts of the scientific community.
Yet the non-scientific types of crowd sourced players bring their pattern-recognition skills to the game playing console , have provided scientists from the University of Washington an extra helping hand. As they have joined with groups including the “Foldit Contenders Group” and “Foldit Void Crushers Group” to use game software to model the crystal structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease (PR), a protein responsible for viral growth. As the proteins in question consist of long chains of amino acids, which are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
The goal is to figure out the order of the amino acids which may be somewhat easy, yet only a small part of the larger story as these amino acid then “chain fold” into complex shapes that determine however the proteins function. Again while sounding simple there are an incredibly high number of degrees of freedom to this structure making it one of the hardest problems in modern science to solve.
While there are many automated program to calculate the minimization algorithms involved in protein work, they only work so well which isn’t good enough. However the driving idea behind Foldit is that a human’s ability to recognize patterns and solve fuzzy problems can succeed where the rote algorithms failed in the past.
So we have to ask ourselves what will the future hold for gaming-inspired citizen scientists? As think about it this way, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see a future of people who farmed for tokens on “Farmville” now become protein-folding gamers. As if scientific problems can be turned into something fun and challenging, with the offer of added rewards such as trophies or the like to show off (hey its all about money & medals), we could see the legions of gamers switch from Worlds of WarCraft, to solving real world problems which are far more rewarding…