Protein folding computer game is not just folderol

A while back we discussed citizen science, or ways in which ordinary people like us can contribute to scientific research. Well, recently there was a spectacular achievement for one of these projects, called Foldit (http://fold.it).

Foldit is an online computer game where users compete to figure out the three dimensional structure of protein molecules.

Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids, which then fold up into interesting shapes. Because these shapes determine their properties, it’s important to figure them out; but it’s also very difficult.

The genius of Foldit is that it harnesses human’s spatial problem-solving abilities and enthusiasm to figure out structures that are beyond the ability of computer models.

The molecule that was recently solved by gamers – as announced in a paper in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology – is a retroviral protease, an type of enzyme found in retroviruses similar to HIV (this particular one was from rhesus monkeys).

Diagram showing the structure predicted by the Foldit Void Crushers Group, compared with a computer simulation and the actual crystal structure
Diagram showing the structure predicted by the Foldit Void Crushers Group (in yellow), compared with a computer simulation (in red) and the actual crystal structure (blue).

Its structure had puzzled scientists for 15 years, but when released to the Foldit gamers they were able to solve it in only 3 weeks (the structure was then verified using x-ray crystallography).

This discovery opens the way for designing retroviral drugs to fight diseases such as AIDS. But more than that, it demonstrates that computer gamers are able to contribute something useful to society – not that there was ever any doubt.

Khatib F, DiMaio F, Foldit Contenders Group, Foldit Void Crushers Group, Cooper S, Kazmierczyk M, Gilski M, Krzywda S, Zabranska H, Pichova I, Thompson J, Popović Z, Jaskolski M & Baker D 2011, “Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players”, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, doi:10.1038/nsmb.2119 (PDF 812 KB)

* folderol, n. Trivia or nonsense.

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