Do you ever feel guilty that you’ve wasted time playing computer games while you could have been doing something more productive? Perhaps instead of online car racing or shooting up virtual enemies you could have been completing household chores, keeping up to date with progress in your area of research or making headway with that paper you’ve been working on.
Or perhaps you could have been contributing to the field of proteomics by helping solve protein structures! If you like computer games but hate the pangs of guilt that come with it, foldit is the game for you.
Biochemists and computer scientists at the University of Washington two years ago launched an ambitious project harnessing the brainpower of computer gamers to solve medical problems.
The game, Foldit, turns one of the hardest problems in molecular biology into a game a bit reminiscent of Tetris. Thousands of people have now played a game that asks them to fold a protein rather than stack colored blocks or rescue a princess.
Players are given a real amino acid sequence and are asked to fold it into the most appropriate structure that uses the least amount of structural energy. As players proceed with the 3-D puzzle, parts of the protein structure with high structural energy are highlighted in red, prompting the player to try a different configuration. Points are awarded based on how close the protein structure comes to the ideal configuration.
Besides finding new protein structures, Foldit players are helping refine algorithms used by protein folding software enabling them to become more efficient at solving structural proteomic problems.
Foldit’s inventor Seth Cooper and his team recently published a paper in Nature entitled “predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game.” I tried checking out the website the day the paper was released but traffic to the site following the paper’s publication and associated press coverage crashed foldit’s servers. Foldit has since published an explanation of what happened and assures all wannabe structural biologists that the game is back online with all of its original functionality.