Online gamers have managed to solve a decade-old scientific puzzle. In three weeks.

Illustration for article titled Online gamers have managed to solve a decade-old scientific puzzle. In three weeks.

What if, instead of tallying up head-shots in Team Fortress 2, you could channel your gaming skills towards helping scientists find treatments to diseases like HIV/AIDS? Well, it turns out you can. In fact, it's already been done.


In diseases like HIV, enzymes known as retroviral proteases play a key role in a virus's ability to overwhelm the immune system and proliferate throughout the body. For years, scientists have been working to identify what these retroviral proteases look like, in order to develop drugs that target these enzymes and stymie the progression of deadly viral diseases like AIDS. Unfortunately, many of these researchers' efforts have been met with little success.

Now, a group of online gamers has solved a scientific puzzle that managed to confound top-tier research scientists for over a decade...only the gamers pulled it off in just three weeks. Scientists can be such noobs.

If you read io9, or if you're a good citizen scientist, then there's a good chance you've already heard of Foldit.

Illustration for article titled Online gamers have managed to solve a decade-old scientific puzzle. In three weeks.

Foldit is a computer game that presents players with the spatial challenge of determining the three-dimensional structures of proteins, the molecules comprising the workforce that runs your entire body.

Players are required to have minimal (if any) biological or biochemical experience to start playing the game, but their large-scale participation, competition, and cooperation (Foldit has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times) has been used to help scientists solve numerous long-standing protein-folding puzzles.


"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," said University of Washington biochemist Firas Khatib, lead author on the paper documenting the success of the protein-folding game players, published in yesterday's issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

The researchers write:

Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination.


The contribution from the gamers was so sizable that Khatib and his colleagues were not only able to determine a working structure of the mystery protein, they actually identified parts of the molecule that they believe can be targeted and deactivated with new antiretroviral drugs.

The solution of the virus enzyme structure, the researchers said, "indicates the power of online computer games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems."


"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," said UW's Seth Cooper, co-creator of Foldit and its lead designer and developer. "The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."

Yesterday's is the second Nature paper to be published using player-generated Foldit discoveries. The gamers who helped crack the protein's structure are, of course, listed as co-authors.


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

A copy of the paper has been made available free of charge on the UW website

Via Nature Structural & Molecular Bio
Learn more about Foldit, and download a copy of the game for yourself.
Learn more about Citizen Science


Top image via Anton Novožilov/Shutterstock
Image of protein folding via


I've had such a problem with the way the news outlets have covered this so far. So I wrote a little note:

Dear Media,

It was trained scientists who decided to pitch this one to the gamers. Its not as if gamers decided to fire up Foldit to solve this problem— they are not an organized group. Also inherent to this decision was scientist knowing that humans have better spacial skills than a computer and that Foldit would help organize hundreds of people to this singular task.

So stop typing headlines like "Scientific novices solve AIDS mystery", it not like the gamers were using the scientific method to solve an age old problem. They were performing a task over and over again until it conformed to predicted scientific theories.