Could you figure out the molecular structure of an enzyme that plays a central role in the spread of HIV? This puzzle had scientists stumped for over 10 years. Then some online gamers solved it in 10 days! What was their trick?
A recent study details how players at Foldit, a gaming site that creates video games from scientific problems, successfully generated models of the M-PMV retroviral protease. Scientists decided to crowd-source the effort to the gaming community after failing themselves to re-create the enzyme on the molecular level.
Foldit is a collaborative puzzle game developed in 2008 by the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry departments. The object of the game is to determine how the basic structure of a protein turns into a functioning three-dimensional unit, a process known as “folding.” Think of it as a cross between high-tech genetic medicine and origami!
In this case, gamers unraveled the molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from a virus similar to HIV that is found in rhesus monkeys. This enzyme holds the key to the multiplication of the virus, so an accurate model of it might help researchers create antiretroviral drugs that could help stop the spread of the HIV in humans.
Scientists gave Foldit users three weeks to create a molecular model of the enzyme, and then compared the best structures to an x-ray crystallography image of it. At least one group of players completed the task in 10 days. Few of the players involved had any background in biochemistry, but chances are they’ve had their share of relevant experience.
“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,” wrote University of Washington researchers in a study published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
Are you on your way to a degree in biochemistry? Give Foldit a try and let us know!