Gamers Solve AIDS Cure Puzzle Which Has Stumped Scientists For 20+ Years and In Under 10 Days.

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Game of life: Foldit players can use different tools to interactively twist, jiggle and reshape proteins

Videogame players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years and could hold the key to finding a cure for AIDS.

A team of gamers needed just ten days to produce an answer to an enzyme riddle that had eluded experts for more than a decade.

The feat was accomplished using a collaborative online game called Foldit, which has been likened to Tetris and encourages players to fold a protein into intricate shapes.

'This is one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS,' Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington, the institution which invented the game, told MSNBC.

Mr Khatib is the lead author of a research paper on the project, published on Sunday by Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, which credits the gamers, mainly non-biologists, for the breakthrough.

The news is a boost for so-called citizen science, which enlists internet users to work on large-scale scientific tasks that sheer computer power cannot accomplish easily.

'People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,' Seth Cooper, a UW computer scientist who is Foldit's lead designer and developer, explained. 'Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.'

For more than a decade, an international team of scientists has been trying to figure out the detailed molecular structure of an enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys.

Such enzymes, known as retroviral proteases, play a key role in the virus' spread - and if medical researchers can figure out their structure, they could conceivably design drugs to stop the virus in its tracks.

Scientists know the pieces that make up a protein but cannot predict how those parts fit together into a 3D structure. And since proteins act like locks and keys, the structure is crucial.

                                                         Breakthrough: The gamers have solved a puzzle which could help cure AIDS

There are millions of ways that the bonds between the atoms in the enzyme's molecules could twist and turn. To design the right chemical key, you have to figure out the most efficient, lowest-energy configuration for the molecule.
No computer in the world is big enough for the challenge, and computers may not take the smartest approach. 
Tens of thousands of players have taken on the challenge of Foldit, which awards points based on the internal energy of the 3-D protein structure, dictated by the laws of physics. 

When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up.

The author list for the paper includes an acknowledgement of more than 57,000 Foldit players, which may be unprecedented on a scientific publication.

The monkey-virus puzzle was one of several unsolved molecular mysteries that a colleague of Mr Khatib's at the university, Frank DiMaio, recently tried to solve. 

'This was one of the cases where his method wasn't able to solve it,' Mr Khatib told MSNBC. So he and his colleagues put the puzzle to Foldit's teams to work on. 'This was really kind of a last-ditch effort,' he recalled. 'Can the Foldit players really solve it?

'They actually did it in less than 10 days,' Mr Khatib told MSNBC.

One piece in the puzzle: Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington, the institution which invented the game said it was a boost for citizen-science

The final decisive move was performed by a player going only by the name 'mimi', who told MSNBC in an email that she had been playing the game for nearly three years since its inception in 2008.

'The game is not only an interesting intellectual challenge… but it also provides a unique society of players driven by both individual and team rivalry with an overall purpose of improving the game and the results achieved,' she wrote.
'I had looked at the structure of the options we were presented with and identified that it would be better if the 'flap' could be made to sit closer to the body of the protein… when I applied the same approach to the evolved solution that had been worked on by other team members, I was able to get it to tuck in.

'We were all very excited to hear that we had helped to find the answer to this crystal form, especially since it had been outstanding so long.'

Foldit has been well known in the scientific community for some time, even if it was not seriously thought of as a ground-breaking tool. 

But Principal investigator Zoran Popovic, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering, told UW Today: 'I hope this paper will convince a lot of those people who were sitting on the sidelines, and the whole genre of scientific discovery games will really take off.'

Scientists are aware of the need to keep the game fun, though. 'Let's be honest, proteins aren't the sexiest video game out there,' Mr Khatib told MSNBC.

Source Daily Mail.