Looks like some online games are more useful than others.
People playing Foldit — "a revolutionary new computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research" — have helped determine the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme which, according to Time magazine's Techland blog, had stumped the scientific community for decades.
The development will help researchers in their quest to treat conditions like HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDs.
A paper published in Nature puts it this way:
Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.
"This is the second Nature paper we published with Foldit discoveries," Foldit's creators wrote in a blog post. "This is truly amazing accomplishment. All Foldit players should be proud. We also have two more in the pipeline one of the algorithmic discoveries in Foldit recipes, and a brand new synthetic protein discovered primarily due to the insight of Foldit protein design. Stay tuned."
On the Foldit website, the game's creators explain why it's is so useful.
As described above, knowing the structure of a protein is key to understanding how it works and to targeting it with drugs. Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
Among the diseases that Foldit games could help combat are HIV/AIDs, cancer and Alzheimer's. The whole thing is a bit of a challenge between man and machine, too, a way to see if humans' "pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities" make them better than computers at folding proteins.