The shape of a protein in the HIV virus had stumped microbiologists for over a decade. Online gamers solved it three weeks. (More)

Discover Magazine reports that online gamers playing Foldit needed just three weeks to work out the shape of a key protein in the HIV virus. Proteins are “biological origami,” long chains of amino acids whose actions are determined by their precise folds and how they fit, or don’t, with other proteins.

Researchers had been using Rosetta@Home, a distributed computing network that takes over volunteers’ computers when the processor would otherwise be idle. Computer models of scientific phenomena are incredibly complex and supercomputer time is expensive, so researchers in many fields invite volunteers to participate in distributed computing solutions. Rosetta@Home uses sophisticated algorithms to predict and test the shapes of proteins, but had made little headway on the protein pair that activates the HIV virus. Scientists knew what the pair looked like when joined, they could not tease out what either part looked like on its own.

Enter online gamers:

Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of casual gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. Best of all, you don’t need a PhD to play Foldit. Barely an eighth of the players work in science, and two-thirds of the top scorers have no biochemistry experience beyond high school. The controls are intuitive; tutorial levels introduce the game’s mechanics; colourful visuals provide hints; and the interface is explained in simple language. While protein scientists concern themselves with “rotating alpha-helices” and “fixing degrees of freedom”, Foldit players simply ‘tweak’, ‘freeze’, ‘wiggle’ and ‘shake’ their on-screen shapes.

Experiments last year showed that gamers’ intuition was better than mathematical number-crunching. What’s more, gamers do better when they do not start with Rosetta@Home’s best approximations. In last year’s experiments, gamers who started with almost-solutions wasted valuable time tweaking what turned out to be dead ends. So University of Washington post-doctoral researcher Firas Khatib inserted random folds to create “a wide variety of terrible answers” for gamers to refine.

Motivated by a mesmerizing and intuitive video game, competition, and the social interaction of online gaming, the players set to work on the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), a close relative of the HIV virus. Within three weeks, gamers worked out an almost perfect model of the protein, which Khatib used to deduce the exact structure. He has already identified features in the protein that make attractive targets for drugs to block joining of the protein pair.

In announcing the breakthrough, Khatib wrote:

This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indi­cate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.

Studies at the Office of Naval Research have shown other benefits from video games, such as increased perceptual ability, attention to detail, and short-term memory. According to program director Ray Perez:

We have discovered that video game players perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players.

And parents thought the kids were wasting time….