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Human Interaction and Technology: A Modern Complementary Pair

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 29, 2011

On line gamers, most without scientific background, have achieved something unprecedented: using collaboration and human ingenuity they discovered and modeled the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus. It was a task that eluded scientists with sophisticated computers.

Their discovery is featured in an article in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, which names scientific researchers and gamers as authors. Read the article here.

The ingenious video game Foldit, developed by University of Washington Biochemistry Professor David Baker and his colleagues at the Baker Laboratory, has been likened to Tetris on steroids and instantaneous origami.

"All important processes in life are carried out by proteins," Baker explains in an NPR interview, and understanding the structure of proteins is essential to understanding the causes of many diseases such as AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer's. Knowledge of proteins is also vital for preventing diseases and developing drugs to treat them. An enzyme is a protein that catalyzes chemical reactions.

Proteins are line lines of amino acids that fold into certain specific shapes or structures. Baker explains it's hard to identify the structure of proteins because of the nearly infinite numbers of different ways in which they can arrange themselves. In addition, they are extremely small and microscopic views don't provide three dimensional images that let scientists see structure. It's important to know the shape, because the structure of a protein specifies its function. Foldit lets individuals and teams use simple rules to decipher structures.

A Wired story by John Bohannan explains how the game works. Players are presented with a 3-D image of a protein-a multicolored knot of spirals and clumps. They use a cursor to manipulate a chain of amino acids into its optimum shape, creating folds by bending, plucking and pulling. The only rules rely on physics: opposites attract, atomic bonds have limited angles of rotation, and the parts of the molecule that stick to water tend to point outward. The closer the players stick to the rules, the more points they get.

Seth Cooper, one of Foldit's creators, tells why gamers can succeed where computers fail.

"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," he said in a story at PluggedIn. "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."

Read the science behind the game and other puzzles in progress here.

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