Scientists from the University of Washington solved a ten year old problem with the HIV virus structure by packing the image off to a bunch of gamers who solve these things for fun.
The problem was that there was an enzyme, M-PMV retroviral protein, which exhibits AIDS-like behaviour, and which might hold a key role in building a cure.
But supercomputers and other thinking tools could not come up with an idea about what the enzyme looked like.
Someone from the University thought that Gamers playing spatial game Foldit might have a chance, since they were used to solving these problems.
What surprised everyone is that it only took them ten days to work out a virtual 3D model by folding and turning it into a myriad of combinations.
The gamers obtained the best one, which needed the lowest energy to maintain, and now the researchers have good idea how the enzyme works, and consequently how to attack it.
Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington and the lead author on the recently published research paper on the problem admitted that giving it to the gamers was a long shot.
Foldit is a very simple game, which tackles folding proteins. To play the game you don’t need any biology background, just native spatial reasoning skills.
Gamers are scored on how well they pack the protein, how efficiently hydrophobics are hidden and how clashes are cleared. Apparently it is easier than it sounds.
The game allows players to chat with each other and collaborate, thus various gamers build on each others’ work. They collectively managed to crack the code for the most energy efficient enzyme structure.
Computers were not able to do that because they do not have human-like spatial reasoning yet.
Seth Cooper who is the lead designer and developer of Foldit, is hoping that more boffins will send the gamers problems that fit within the Foldit format.