Online gamers have succeeded where scientists have failed for a decade, successfully deciphering the structure of an AIDS-like retrovirus enzyme.
Biochemists called in the gamers after failing to piece together the structure of the protein-cutting enzyme, and challenged them to produce an accurate model of the enzyme using Foldit, an online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.
They did it in only three weeks - an achievement believed to represent the first time gamers have solved a longstanding scientific problem.
Retroviral protease enzymes have a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. However, efforts to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," says Dr Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry.
Remarkably, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine and, within a few days, determine the enzyme's structure. Equally amazing, surfaces on the molecule stood out as likely targets for drugs to de-active the enzyme.
Fold-it was created by computer scientists at the University of Washington Center for Game Science in collaboration with the Baker lab.
"The focus of the UW Center for Game Sciences," said director Dr. Zoran Popovic, associate professor of computer science and engineering, "is to solve hard problems in science and education that currently cannot be solved by either people or computers alone."
The researchers say their results indicate the potential for integrating online video games into real-world science.
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," says Dr Seth Cooper of the UW Department of Computing Science and Engineering.
"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."