Who says gaming is a waste of time?
Agence France-Presse, The Raw Story, reports that online gamers have solved an enzyme structural puzzle in only 3 weeks that eluded scientists for over a decade.
Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions necessary for life. Proteins are simply chains of amino acids that fold into specific shapes depending on their specific order of amino acids. There are only 20 essential amino acids used by all terrestrial lifeforms and each causes protein chains to fold and twist in unique ways. The final shape of the protein is essential to its function.
For example, hemoglobin is the protein inside of red blood cells that carries oxygen. It is made from 4 separate protein chains (2 alpha chains and 2 beta chains) that fit together like puzzle pieces. The beta chain has 146 amino acids. If position #6 has the wrong amino acid the protein can fold incorrectly and subsequently result in sickle-cell disease.
Proteins can have up to thousands of amino acids, and obviously the longer the sequence the more difficult it is to determine its 3D structure. If you want to design a drug that attaches to an enzyme and blocks its function, it is critical to know its shape.
To solve the HIV protein folding mystery, Seth Cooper helped to create an online game called “Fold.it“. Per Cooper, “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. 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.”
Given the success it is very likely that gamers will be tapped to solve other scientific mysteries provided that innovators are able to make games for them.