A team of scientists at the University of Washington have turned protein research into an addicting computer game. So addicting, in fact, that the amateur players have become more skilled at protein design than the scientists themselves.
The game, called Foldit, was released to the public in 2008. After solving a few tutorial puzzles, players are given a massive, complex protein that they're able to bend, twist, and shake. The players' goal is to use their toolbox to fold the protein chain to make it more stable. The more stable the protein chain, the more points are awarded. (If you're interested in giving the game a try, point your browser at fold.it and download the client.)
The most recent puzzles given to players involved an enzyme that university biochemists had created. Using the nearly 180,000 molecular blueprints submitted by players, the biochemists were able to create an enzyme 18-times more powerful than the scientists had been able to create themselves. A paper on the crowdsourced enzyme was published Sunday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
While that particular enzyme doesn't have any practical real-world applications, the current puzzle being solved by gamers involves a protein designed to block the flu virus that caused the 1918 pandemic. Solutions to that puzzle could lead to new drugs capable of treating the disease.
[Image source: Foldit]
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