Foldit gamers help unlock possible AIDS-fighting protein


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The next time someone tells you that playing video games is a waste of time, feel free to bring this up.

Over a three-week period, gamers playing Foldit, an online protein-folding game, helped to map out the structure of an enzyme that could be used to help fight HIV and AIDS.


What the gamers were able to accomplish in unlocking the structure of a protein called M-PMV was something that scientists, engineers and automated computer programs haven’t been to pull off in about a decade’s worth of attempts, according to a study published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Foldit is a game produced by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science and department of Computer Science and Engineering, which also conducted the experiment of getting gamers to unlock the protein structure. The M-PMV protein is one of the enzymes that the HIV virus uses to multiply and grow into AIDS, the study said. Mapping out the structure of the protein could help scientists develop drugs to combat HIV and AIDS.

‘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,’ the university study said. ‘Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.’

The type of AIDS the M-PMV protein would fight at this point would be a strain found in simians, but the example of gamers helping to aid scientists caught in a roadblock is another hugely important find in the experiment, the study said.

‘In proof-of-concept tests, Foldit players -- most of whom have little or no background in biochemistry -- were able to solve protein structure refinement problems in which backbone rearrangement was necessary to correctly bury hydrophobic residues,’ the study said. ‘Here we report Foldit player successes in real-world modeling problems with more complex deviations from native structures, leading to the solution of a long-standing protein crystal structure problem.’

The university also offered up a thank you to gamers on its website for the game,


‘We are so proud of everything that you Foldit players have accomplished already, and we hope that this article will show the world the power of citizen science,’ the university said in a blog post on Foldit’s site. ‘This is the first instance we are aware of in which online gamers solved a long-standing scientific problem and we want to thank you all for your amazing work on this and everything else. Speaking of which, we are submitting another paper this week comparing your recipes against the state of the art algorithms.’

Microsoft, Adobe and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are among the groups sponsoring the university’s development of the game Foldit.


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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles