Computer gamers solve medical problems

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As a core area of molecular biology, the study of protein structure is integral to elucidating pathological processes. Protein structure prediction has become one of the most important goals of pharmaceutical and biochemical industries.

With the correctly folded 3D structure of a protein often being integral to its function, the demand for the development of new and improved techniques for computational protein structure prediction is forever on the up.

Every two years a worldwide experiment: Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), provides hundreds of researchers worldwide with the opportunity to test their structure predictions and delivers information on the latest modelling techniques and software available.

Now, solutions being entered to CASP are originating from another type of computing project. Foldit is a computer game that presents a series of puzzles in which the user manipulates a graphical representation of an unfolded protein to create a final 3D structure, with the accuracy of the process being measured by a “score” which is calculated as the user modifies the protein.

Created by researchers at the University of Washington (UW), Foldit attempts to apply the human brain’s instinctive abilities to the problem of protein structure prediction. By analyzing the way our minds intuitively approach 3D shapes and patterns, researchers hope to offer new dynamics on the problems presented by the limitations of existing algorithmic software. Following the success of Foldit, researchers in other fields are now considering using this approach to enhance their research.

Reflecting on the aims of the project and the concept of citizen science, UW professor Zoran Propovic, comments on some high scoring individuals: “They can’t even explain what they’re doing, but somehow they’re able to do it. We’re hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it’s done by ".

For further information on Foldit or to have a go at the game yourself, please visit the Foldit website.

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