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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gamers crack AIDS puzzle

A breakthrough in AIDS research has come not from the lab, but from the gaming community.  The three-dimensional structure of the protease (protein-chopping enzyme) in an AIDS-like virus has now been solved.

One of the hardest problems in biology is to predict what a protein will look like based on its amino acid sequence.  Each protein folds into a precise complicated three-dimensional shape that is critical for its function.   Solving the shape often leads to a greater understanding of that function, and in some cases, to the ability to disable the protein.  For that reason, researchers are keen to tease out the structure of proteins.  Enter, Foldit.

Foldit is a multiplayer protein-folding game complete with opportunities to compete and cooperate, and to compare rankings. Unlike other citizen science programs, Foldit does not passively make use of computer down time, but rather engages the players to actively solve the problems.  Firas Khatib of the University of Washington set Foldit players the challenge of solving the structure of a protein (part of a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys) that had stumped biochemists for the past 15 years.  The gamers (most of whom have little science background) managed to crack the structure.  In three weeks.

Read more about it at Not Exactly Rocket Science.