Tuesday, 20 September 2011 00:03

Gamers become expert protein folders

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Sometimes scientific progress comes from the most unexpected of sources.  Molecular biology researchers harness the ingenuity of online gamers to solve a 10-year-old problem.

In a recent paper published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, researchers outline a project to map the three-dimensional structure of complex molecules.

Nothing particularly surprising there, except for the method used.

According to the paper, "Foldit is a multiplayer online game that enlists players worldwide to solve difficult protein-structure prediction problems. Foldit players leverage human three-dimensional problem-solving skills to interact with protein structures using direct manipulation tools and algorithms from the Rosetta structure prediction methodology."

After a few tentative steps to explore the best method to utilise the tool, the team set a problem that had been vexing molecular biologists for over ten years.  This was to determine the complete three-dimensional structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close analogue of the AIDS virus.  Very few attempts had achieved any real success and this was seen as something of a "big problem."

Amazingly, the on-line game players had it solved in just three weeks.  The importance of understanding the physical structure of complex molecules such as these is to determine likely sites for chemical attack as an early stage in creating suitable drug-based remedies.  It is common that an attack on some simple version of a molecular family has application in its more complex brethren (in this case, AIDS).

The paper notes, "The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the M-PMV PR structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems. 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.

"These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."

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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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