Gamers playing Foldit, a popular protein folding game that pits teams of players across the world against scientific puzzles, have solved a problem that has plagued scientists for years… in less than 10 days. This breakthrough occurred thanks to a combination of computer and human processing. Foldit allows players to take on challenges that no computer in existence can, and by doing so, potentially save lives.
Thanks to a combination of team work and inventive problem solving, players of Foldit have solved a key puzzle that scientists believe could be an important key to finding a solution to AIDS. A team of Foldit players took a look at the puzzle, each contributing a part to the end result. When the final solution was locked into place by a player named ‘mimi,’ a solution was found. The solved puzzle acts like a 3D key that allows scientists to better understand disease-related proteins.
During a Gnomedex conference held in 2009, Firas Khatib from the University of Washington spoke about the project and its potential impact on the scientific community. He spoke in detail about how a protein folding video game can further research into disease-related proteins and help scientists discover causes and cures for various problems that plague mankind.
Foldit is a free downloadable program that runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux systems. Once downloaded, players can compete for points that are determined by the the predicted native state of the protein. The closer a puzzle solver gets to the predicted native state, the better the score. This prediction is weighed by the internal energy of the molecule. The lower the energy state, the closer it would be to the solution.
While the science behind protein folding is complex, the game is much simpler. Players see the protein as a puzzle, and they receive a real-time score update based on how their move alters the internal energy of the protein. As players continue to get closer and closer to the native state of the protein, their score increases and their rank on the total boards goes up.
Unlike most games that challenge you to combat an enemy, solve canned puzzles that were designed by humans, or rescue a princess in a castle, Foldit challenges its players to solve real-world scientific problems in a way no computer can. While playing Foldit, players are not just competing with each other for points, they’re taking an active part in an important scientific process that can help save lives.