NPR : News

Gamers Solve Stubborn Viral Mystery: The Shape Of A Key Enzyme

See, Mom? Playing online video games can pay off.

An online group of gamers has correctly deduced the structure of an enzyme that AIDS-like viruses use for reproduction. By playing the online-game Foldit, the group figured out the structure of an important viral protein that has baffled scientists for more than a decade.

The enzyme is a retroviral protease and plays a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Gamers, who weren't experts in viruses, solved the puzzle in just three weeks.

X-ray crystallography, the gold standard for protein structures, verified the result. The findings were published online by the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Biochemist Firas Khatib believes the data will help researchers develop better antiretroviral drugs and show that Foldit can help solve thorny scientific mysteries.

More than 600,000 people have played Foldit since it was rolled out in 2008 by researchers from the University of Washington. "The game is like Tetris on steroids," Foldit co-creator Zoran Popovic tells Shots.

Gamers start with a protein that looks like a necklace. Instead of beads or pearls, amino acids hang from the strand. The game challenges players to manipulate the structure of the protein so that it reaches the lowest energy state, which earns them the highest score. The function of the protein changes with the shape it takes.

Gamers bring a different viewpoint to the table when it comes to solving scientific puzzles: freedom from scientific convention. "Humans can outperform the computers when you have to make a drastic move in order to get to the correct answer," Khatib says.

Sometimes to get to the right answer, a drastic or seemingly illogical decision has to be made. But a computer trying to solve a problem won't make an illogical decision that leads it down the wrong path because it can't always see that far ahead, the researchers say.

Scientists sometimes have related but irrelevant information flying around their problem-solving process that can blind them to unusual solutions. Gamers don't have the restrictions that scientists and computers impose upon themselves.

Khatib hopes that the gaming technology will catch fire with other scientists. "Citizen science can actually help solve unsolved scientific problems," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

A Love Letter To Literature: Reading Gabo In 'The Paris Review'

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died Thursday. It would be hard to overstate the importance of his novels, but author Gustavo Arellano recommends getting to know him in a different medium.
NPR

In The Land Of Razor Clams, Dinner Hides Deep Within The Sand

Clam digging satisfies that primeval urge to go out into nature and find free food. And inveterate Washington state clam diggers admit they compete to get their daily limit of 15 clams.
NPR

Are Democrats Trying To Energize The Base With The Race Card?

Top Democrats have said recently that some GOP opposition to President Obama and his agenda is based on race. It's an explosive message that might drive Democratic voters to the polls.
NPR

Should College Dropouts Be Honored By Their Alma Maters?

From a Top Gun sequel starring drones to Howard University's pick of Puff Daddy as its commencement speaker, the Barbershop guys weigh in on the week's news.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.