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Where Scientists Fail, Gamers Succeed
For 15 years, scientists struggled to figure out the molecular structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. Deciphering the structure, they believed, could lead to an HIV/AIDS cure.
As they hit dead ends, a few began to think differently, crowdsource the issue and created a multiplayer game within Foldit, a science-based gaming engine.
Ten days later, non-scientist gamers discovered the key researchers had long been looking for.
Via MSNBC’s Cosmiclog:
The problem is that enzymes are far tougher to crack than your typical lock. There are millions of ways that the bonds between the atoms in the enzyme’s molecules could twist and turn. To design the right chemical key, you have to figure out the most efficient, llowest-energy configuration for the molecule — the one that Mother Nature herself came up with.
That’s where Foldit plays a role. The game is designed so that players can manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower.
Writes Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington, and his colleagues in a paper published in Nature Structual & Molecular Biology (PDF):
Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.
How many scientific problems could we potentially solve with games?