Ever heard of protein folding? Neither had we. But the online game Foldit lets you do just that, so you can have fun while you contribute to the progress of science. Yes, the science that actual, professional scientists spend time working with!
The Sydney Morning Herald points us to an interesting article published in the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology journal [PDF], which describes how online gamers playing on Foldit have deciphered a puzzle that had bamboozled scientists and automated computers working on the problem for over a decade.
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They figured out the protein structure of a monomeric protease enzyme, which is “a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV”. The understanding of this structure is an important step towards discovering the causes of many diseases related to this enzyme and coming up with treatments for them.
This is only the first time that online gamers have figured out the solution to a complex scientific problem. Foldit co-creator Seth Cooper said that their spatial reasoning skills allowed gamers to succeed where powerful computers had failed before and expressed hope that their game, and others like it, would lead to many such accomplishments in the future.