Here goes an exciting story, a symbiosis of human mind and computer, to solve a decade-long problem in the molecular structure of a key enzyme in an AIDS-like virus. The feat was carried out by gamers playing an online game called Foldit, where groups compete to unfold chains of amino acids–the building blocks of proteins–using a set of online tools. It is believed that this is the first time gamers have resolved a long-standing scientific problem.
Online gamers cracked the structural code of a retroviral monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV. The game is a 3-D picture that “unfolds” the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs. Looking at proteins through a microscope provides only a flat image of what looks like (to the untrained eye) a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti.
Understanding protein structure is important in understanding enzymatic function, substrate and environment to lead to strategies for combating viruses and other microorganisms. Pharmacologists use structural information to devise drugs.
Foldit was developed in 2008 by the University of Washington. “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” Firas Khatib of the university’s biochemistry lab said in a press release.