2011 Science News: Curing Disease Is Fun and Games

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Gamers design new proteins that have disease-defying capabilities

by Catherine McNiff

Large Hadron Collider

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All those hours spent playing video games paid off in Sept. 2011 when gamers of the free online game Foldit created the correct structure of a protein that the virus HIV uses to replicate itself. With this breakthrough, published in Nature as "Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players," not only was the usefulness of the citizen scientist validated, but a real-world scientific problem was also solved.

Proteins are the workhorses of the body, breaking down our food, powering our muscles, transmitting messages, and fighting disease. When things go wrong in protein land, however, the molecules that do so much important work also have the power to wreak havoc on our bodies and our health. The task of the gamers is to identify the structure of a particular protein so that scientists can better understand its function and develop the best drug to counteract it.

Created in 2008 by students, professors, and researchers affiliated with the University of Washington, Foldit, with the tagline "Solve Puzzles for Science," challenges everyday people to fold the best protein. Made of linked amino acids, each and every protein folds its series of amino acids into a unique shape in which it is most stable. Even a small protein consisting of 100 amino acids can be folded in almost limitless ways. Following three simple rules of effective protein folding posted on the website (http://fold.it/portal/) (pack the protein, hide the hydrophobics, clear the clashes), the player tries to make the tightest, or most chemically stable, molecule possible. The goal of the game is twofold: to predict the structure of proteins based on their amino acid sequence and to design new proteins that have disease-defying capabilities.

Discovery May Lead to Drugs That Fight Cancer and Alzheimer's

For more than ten years, the scientific community had tried, and failed, to identify the structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease which allows the HIV virus to reproduce. Where the supercomputers, biologists, and biochemists failed, Foldit gamers-in three weeks-succeeded. The discovery paves the way for new antiretroviral drugs in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Cancer and Alzheimer's are two other examples of diseases involving proteins that will benefit from gamers' efforts in the future.

Another exciting aspect of this puzzle breakthrough is the proof it offers that the human brain is not obsolete. What the gamers brought to the table was intuition, problem-solving, spatial reasoning, and the thirst for competition. A computer game in which players vie to be the first to identify and design proteins to prevent, treat, and cure disease? It is a win-win formula.

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