PC Gamers Advance AIDS Research--By Gaming

A story on the FoxNews website reports that in a matter of days, PC gamers have been able to decipher the structure of a retrovirus protein that has stymied scientists for years. The protein is a critical component in how some viruses multiply, including HIV. It is hoped that the findings will help open the door to the creation of new drugs that can inhibit the virus’s ability to multiply and ultimately stop the spread of the virus.

To pull of the feat, the researchers at the University of Washington used a game called FoldIt, which is available for PC, Mac, and Linux, that tasks gamers with creating 3D models. According to the FoldIt website, the games are “meant to generate the evidence needed to prove that human protein folders can be more effective than computers at certain aspects of protein structure prediction. That's what all the puzzles in FoldIt are about right now: predicting the structure of a protein based on its amino acid sequence.”

One of the lead authors of the study, Firas Khatib, said, “We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed. The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems." (source: Nature Structural & Molecular Biology)

The researchers are hopeful that their findings will open the door to more crowd-sourcing and online game-playing in scientific discovery. One of the co-creators of FoldIt says humans have spatial reasoning skills that computers are not yet good at, which helps explain why gamers were able to decipher the protein so quickly, where the brute force of computers have failed. Whatever the reason, the study proves something we’ve known for ages—PC gamers rule.