Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gamers help crack AIDS protein puzzle

Players of an online video game called Foldit have helped researchers discover the structure of an protein-cutting enzyme produced by an AIDS-like virus found in monkeys. Scientists have struggled with the problem for a decade, but the gamers helped crack it in just three weeks.

Foldit tasks players with manipulating the complex 3D shapes of various virtual proteins in an effort to discover what they look like in real life. Proteins tend to occupy low-energy states, so players are awarded points for the most energy-efficient configurations. The game was created by researchers at the University of Washington in 2008 and since then players have proved that they can beat other automated protein-folding methods, which can often get stuck in dead-ends that require human creativity to overcome.

Now Foldit players have tackled the shape of an enzyme from the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV). Understanding how this protein works could help scientists to disable it, preventing the virus from taking hold, but that requires knowing which features of the structure to target. The Foldit players were able to quickly come up with a valid protein shape that the researchers then verified as correct. The findings were published yesterday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, which credits the players for their help.

David Baker, one of the researchers at the University of Washington who came up with Foldit, says the gamers have made a real scientific contribution. "The M-PMV structure had stumped scientists for a very long time before Foldit players made their breakthrough. This is the first example I know of game players solving a long standing scientific problem," he told Nature News.

The players themselves were also very happy with their achievement. One player, known as "mimi", said: "The feeling of having done something that could make a significant contribution to research in this field is very special and unexpected. Foldit players have achieved a number of successes so far, and I hope we will go on to make many more."

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