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September 20, 2011

Online gamers solve decade-old AIDS enzyme puzzle in three weeks

Gamers competing on Foldit provide pharmacologists 3-D picture they needed

By CBR Staff Writer

Online gamers of Foldit have reportedly helped scientists solve a long standing puzzle about the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus.

Scientists had been looking for the answer for a decade; a task that the gamers came together to complete in a few weeks. Their work has been published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, where they have been referred to as co-authors.

Gamers had to break down the protein structure of a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV, reported AFP. Researchers were looking for the structure to find cures to diseases as deadly as AIDS.

When scientists used a microscope, they found only a flat one-dimensional image of the virus. Finally, gamers gave pharmacologists the 3-D picture they needed to find potential targets for drugs.

Foldit was developed in 2008 by the University of Washington. It is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers compete to unfold chains of protein structures using a set of online tools, said the AFP report. The gamers completed the task in three weeks.

"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Firas Khatib of the university’s biochemistry lab said.

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"The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."

Foldit co-creator Seth Cooper said, "People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at."

He added, "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."

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