Thousands of gamers playing a crowd-sourced, citizen science project called Foldit have solved a puzzle that’s stumped biochemists for more than a decade. Better yet, their discovery could open new doors to a cure for Aids.
Scientists had failed to uncover the structure of a retrovirus enzyme which plays a critical role in maturation and proliferation of the AIDS virus. Knowing exactly what this protease molecule looked like would help researchers build a targeted anti-AIDS drug.
“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry. So the University’s protein structure lab turned the challenge over to players of Foldit.
The game is a complicated 3D puzzler that calls on spatial reasoning — something that today’s computers are not too good at. Foldit tasks players with compacting a complex worm-like chain of amino acids so the protein takes up as little room as possible, while creating hydrogen bonds and avoiding messy collisions.