Gamers on FoldIt Beat Lvl. 40 Retrovirus Boss, Make Scientists Look like Nancies
If you’re a well-rounded geek, you probably already know about the site FoldIt. FoldIt takes advantage of the fact that lots of people like to play video games while simultaneously being told they’re helping save humanity. Since after all, the human brain is actually pretty good at figuring out how proteins fold most efficiently and folding proteins is kind of fun, FoldIt takes advantage of offsite parallel wetware processing in much the same way as SETI@home takes advantage of your computer’s down-cycles to massively parallel process noises from the galaxy. In other words, they made a game that uses the human brain’s natural ability to wiggle, shake and twist protein chains until they fold up into their natural state.
CORRECTION: In the comments, you’ll see that my comparison of FoldIt and SETI@home was a little confusing to some readers. Thanks to peteROC, I realized why – the program folding@home operates more or less exactly like SETI@home, using your computer’s down-cycles to process protein folding. The tip-off I left about “wetware processing,” meaning that the “down cycles” used were individual human brains (and not massive, distributed parallel processing on home PC’s and Playstation 3′s) was obviously a lot more clear to me, as the author, than the readers. That’s my mistake.
It turns out that this time the gamers at FoldIT really are helping save lives – the HIV, like every other virus, has a shell made of proteins; figuring out the structure of those proteins is key in designing drugs to combat the HIV. Unfortunately, it’s also really, really difficult. Like, really-smart-dudes-in-white-coats-working-for-a-decade-with-no-joy difficult. Or it was, until University of Washington biochemist Firas Khatib uploaded the unfolded protein to FoldIt. It took gamers 3 weeks to determine the working structure of the protein in such detail that the researchers were able to identify the structures they want to target with anti-virals.
If you’re interested in FoldIt (and having your name as co-author on a scientific paper if you figure out the solution to a high-end protein problem like this one), the link is above. Who knows, you might actually get to save the world in this game. (In addition, if you like puzzle games, FoldIt’s actually pretty fun.)