The child you scold for spending so much time on World of Warcraft? That kid could turn out to be a biochemist’s dream.
According to University of Washington researchers who run an online game—sorry—an online science project called Foldit, players can beat computer algorithms at solving one of science’s toughest problems: How to fold a protein.
Proteins, which are composed of long strings of amino acids, won’t work properly unless they are balled up in a stable 3D shape. There are thousands of ways a given protein can fold, but only one structure that allows the protein to function. Knowing a protein’s shape is critical to understanding the processes it’s involved in and to designing new drugs. Until recently, scientists simply allowed computer software to chug along endlessly, working out likely possibilities for each protein’s shape.
But in 2008, Seth Cooper, David Baker, and others at the University of Washington decided to see if citizen scientists could do better than computers. They created Foldit, a multiplayer online game that pits volunteers against each other to see who can manipulate proteins into their most stable configuration.
Foldit has all the perks and prods of any good online game: a point system, skill levels, chat rooms, wikis, and tools with names like “shake,” “wiggle,” and “rubber band.” The “game” takes advantage of three traits humans have and computers lack: superior spatial awareness, the willingness to take short-term risks for long-term gains, and the ability to recognize a dead-end. So far, more than 57,000 human folders have joined in.
And it looks like they’re winning. In a recent study, the Washington researchers matched the players against the state-of-the-art protein-folding computer program, testing them on 10 proteins whose structures were known but had not been made public. The top-ranked gamers bested the software in five cases, matched it in three, and lost only twice. Unlike the computer, the players took risks, temporarily de-stabilizing the protein in order to end up with a better structure.
On August 5, the gamers scored in a different kind of game when Nature published the researchers’ report about the protein-folders’ prowess. At the end of the list of authors, there they were: “Foldit players.”