This puzzle game lets you help create a coronavirus vaccine

Coronavirus Spikes
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A game about folding proteins gives citizen scientists the chance to help curb the coronavirus outbreak — or at least get the ball rolling. Foldit, as the game is called, now has a puzzle specifically dedicated to COVID-19.

The developers of Foldit this week released a new puzzle called “Coronavirus Spike Protein Binder Design,” which would allow users to attempt to create an antiviral protein that will counteract the coronavirus‘s spike protein. According to the puzzle’s description:

Coronaviruses display a ‘spike’ protein on their surface, which binds tightly to a receptor protein found on the surface of human cells. Once the coronavirus spike binds to the human receptor, the virus can infect the human cell and replicate… If we can design a protein that binds to this coronavirus spike protein, it could be used to block the interaction with human cells and halt infection.

Foldit was created by University of Washington researchers with the intent of using gamers’ tireless compulsion to solve problems to help scientific innovation. In Foldit, the player folds protein structures to create new ones, furthering understanding of different protein chains. Or, to quote the Foldit FAQ: “The more we know about how certain proteins fold, the better new proteins we can design to combat the disease-related proteins and cure the diseases.” According to UW’s Center for Game Science, from which the game was launched in 2008, it was designed to “work on curing cancer, AIDS, and a host of diseases.”

[Read: Alibaba’s new AI system can detect coronavirus in seconds with 96% accuracy]

There are two different “difficulty levels” within the puzzle. In the easier of the two, players fold an existing coronavirus binding protein. In the harder, they design the protein from scratch. The most promising solutions players come up with will be tested at UW’s Institute for Protein Design. It wouldn’t be a cure by any stretch, but it’d be a start. Foldit has upwards of 200,000 players, says UW, so it’d be interesting to see what, if anything, they can discover through the sheer power of numbers.

Foldit isn’t the only program using regular people to help fight the coronavirus. [email protected] is also researching new protein structures, and is calling upon those with “unused computational resources” to donate them to the research effort, with their power being used to generate more data that might lead to a vaccine.

If you’re interested in trying the game out, you can find it on Foldit‘s website here. You’ll need to download Foldit and play the tutorial puzzles to start. The game is free-to-play.

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