Gamers solve problem in 3 weeks scientists couldn't in 10 years

Contributed by
Dec 15, 2012

You don't need to be a scientist to determine the structure of an enzyme whose configuration is unknown. It turns out you can just be a gamer.

For the last 10 years, scientists had failed to resolve the configuration of an enzyme, the retroviral protease of M-PMV, which causes AIDS in simians.

ScienceBlog writes:

This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Intensive research is under way to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like.

Eventually, the scientists gave their work over to a game called Foldit. The academic paper "Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players" relates:

Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to inter- act with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algo- rithms.... Players collaborate with teammates while competing with other players to obtain the highest-scoring (lowest-energy) models.

So after turning a problem into a game, with competition against other plays and the prize of academic publication, the problem was solved. In three weeks.

As a result, scientists may now develop drugs that can deactivate the enzyme. In the best-case scenario, the right drug might prevent HIV from ever developing into AIDS.

Thanks to a game.

Note: You can use Foldit to solve puzzles for science (or, as we like to call it, SCIENCE!) at the Foldit website. You don't need a background in chemistry or biology to participate, just good spatial awareness and an ability to solve 3-D puzzles.