Online gamers crack Aids puzzle

2011-09-18 23:16

Paris - Online gamers have achieved a feat beyond the realm of Second Life or Dungeons and Dragons: they have deciphered the structure of an enzyme of an Aids-like virus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.

The exploit is published on Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, where - exceptionally in scientific publishing - both gamers and researchers are honoured as co-authors.

Their target was a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV.

Figuring out the structure of proteins is vital for understanding the causes of many diseases and developing drugs to block them.

But a microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that "unfolds" the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.

This is where Foldit comes in.

Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids - the building blocks of proteins - using a set of online tools.

To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks.

Human intuition

Cracking the enzyme "provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs," says the study, referring to the lifeline medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

It is believed to be the first time that gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.

"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Firas Khatib of the university's biochemistry lab said in a press release.

"The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."

One of Foldit's creators, Seth Cooper, explained why gamers had succeeded where computers had failed.

"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," he said.

"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."

  • Martin du Plessis - 2011-09-19 00:01

    hahaha! And who says Games are a waste of time and Gamers are a useless section of society?

      Sooriya Bandara - 2011-09-19 00:34

      Marti..there is a big different between gaming coders and game players.

      PyroSA - 2011-09-19 01:00

      If only more games were actually useful :(

      GoblinPisser - 2011-09-19 06:14

      Not I!!!

      Ateis - 2011-09-19 06:43

      @Sooriya What does coding have to do with it? They just played the game - they did not develop Foldit?

      jean.dutoit - 2011-09-19 07:17

      Sooriya, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

      negro.please - 2011-09-19 07:35

      I think the wives of married gamers (rare) would beg to differ with you on this. I mean really, 35 years old and playing games all night whilst your wife is in the bedroom. Why is cancer being given a back seat? Is that market not big enough?

      Lanfear - 2011-09-19 11:13

      Fully agreed Martin! @ negro.please - married gamers are not rare, contrary to popular opinion. And married couples both playing games is not rare either. Gaming has gone beyond the point of it being geeky [mostly male] nerds sitting in darkened flats, eating junk food and playing games for days on end. I have played various online games, my other half is an active gamer. I don't mind him playing, gives me the time to read undisturbed... hehe. Anyway, why is gaming when you're 35 considered "wrong" by so many people? But watching tv, etc. is not? At least I [and hubby] use our brains when we play games! At least we aren't in our 30s and all we do is sit and watch crappy soaps and reality shows or sport on tv, being spoonfed. Perhaps cancer will be next, who knows.

      negro.please - 2011-09-19 11:28

      Lanfear: Ok, we'll agree to disagree then and leave it at that. There's so much more important things to debate :)

      negro.please - 2011-09-19 11:47

      But honestly, you would like him to do more around the house now, wouldn't you? LOL.

      anon - 2011-09-19 12:45

      negro.please - Seriously bud, pull your preconceived notions out of 1995, and welcome yourself to 2011. Gaming is here, its competitive and its big business. If you are a hobbyist in ANYTHING, your wife will "sit in the bedroom", while you are in the garage/garden/pub.

      Lanfear - 2011-09-19 14:24

      @ negro.please - no, we don't have that kind of relationship at all. We share household tasks and all that. Gaming is as much a hobby as anything else. If I complain about his gaming [that's when I'm not playing myself!], then he can complain about my obsessive reading habits, which I won't enjoy at all. So yup, we can agree to disagree... :p

  • Valis - 2011-09-19 00:04

    I was one of those gamers :)

  • Grant Hide - 2011-09-19 00:04

    Battlefield 3 for the win :)

  • noxiboxi - 2011-09-19 03:53

    The worry is that if people who can play computer games are able to cure these dreaded diseases in a couple of minutes. What the hell are our scientists doing, they have been trying to solve these problems for years? Sounds like they sleeping on the job, while getting paid big salaries. Unless our scientists really are just stupid, common, if a programmer can solve the problem so fast that’s no excuse. This is my point, take away the big funding and big salaries and all the researches who are in it for the money will leave. And you'll have all sorts of passionate ordinary people who really want to make a difference emerge with tons of cures, solutions and ideas. One thing we know is true about a human, if he wants something bad enough he almost always gets it no matter what it takes. In the case of our current situation, the industry has attracted all the people who want to become rich, and now that they are rich there is no rush or urgent drive to find the cures. This is why we see the above happening. The other thing that is true about humans, is that we know this, but we do nothing about it.

      Maiavan - 2011-09-19 07:34

      Scientists = big salaries? You clearly have NO idea about the industry.

      Martin du Plessis - 2011-09-19 09:26

      and it took the gamers several weeks to do it.

      Gumbi - 2011-09-19 13:54

      I agree... if we also look at software and opensource products you can see why so many problems exist in select high paid programers work and the real development and advancements come when masses of brite passionate people come together to write a piece of software, not for money but because they can or see a real need for it. I guess the same goes for the medical community.

      LabGuy - 2011-09-21 16:45

      I work in a cancer research lab, and I felt I need to respond to this comment. First off, many scientists in the field do their work from passion, and not for monitary gain. Ph.D's in this country spend 3-5 years getting their degrees while working in a lab and developing a thesis. All the while, they're paid probably around 25-30k a year. After, you take Post-Doctoral positions in established labs which don't pay much more. The senior post-doc in my lab is a genius, but he works like a DOG (think 70+ hours a week). The only time you really make money in research if if you can start your own lab as a PI (principal interest), but you'll be working far more hours, and you have NO job security. Any PI is 2 bad years of research away from completely losing funding and their lab with it. The reasoning behind this comment is bogus, just look at the US public education system. Our teachers in this country are being paid less and less by the day, and our world rankings in math/science/other subjects are dropping @ an alarming rate. Why? Because our best and brightest will mostly be attracted to the jobs with the most reward. Lastly, research should get MORE funding, not less. You say there isn't a 'rush' to find the cure, and that is offensive. I (and the rest of my lab) work to give the public better treatments for this horrible disease. RE-search (keyword RE) takes tons of trial and error, but the 5% of the time where things go right lead to great things.

  • werner.smidt - 2011-09-19 10:21

    I'm curious as to why this article is so vague. @Martin . . . sorry to disappoint you, but protein modelling is rarely this easy.

  • sarecen - 2011-09-20 08:10

    Cant we make games for the ANC to play? maby start to think? esp Malema

  • RaveWolf - 2011-09-20 12:47

    All I have to say is.... I will never "grow up" I'm still a kid inside... Where in stone does it say that ALL Childish ways must end? There is a HUGE difference between being young at heart and Stupidity. Games and so called "Real Life" strive for the same things... Fun & Survival. The Happier we are and the more we enjoy life & smile, the longer we live. (proven by science) So, Grow Young and... GAME ON!!!

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