Ding! Online gamers just helped AIDS researchers level up! For over ten years scientists have been trying to get a 3D model of the monomeric protease enzyme, one of the key enzymes in the creation of retroviruses, a family of viruses that also includes HIV. Their issue has been that although they can look at this enzyme under a microscope, they were only able to get a top-down two-dimensional view of the enzyme. What they needed was a 3D model of the enzyme that unfolds and rotates so that scientists can look for potential weaknesses and entry points for future drugs.
Enter Foldit and online gamers. Foldit was developed by the University of Washington in 2008 as a fun team-based game in which groups of gamers competed with each other online in order to quickly unfold sets of amino acids. Think of it like Folding@Home, but with people actually participating in the process instead of just donating a machine’s computing power. The gamers were able to produce a highly accurate model in just three weeks. Their accomplishment will allow scientists to consider a whole new bag of possibilities for drugs that attack this enzyme. Although this is a huge win for the battle against AIDS, this also marks the first time gamers have resolved a scientific problem that has remained a mystery for a long period of time.
The success of the Foldit program gives it the upper hand against Folding@Home, because the spatial reasoning skills of humans are the key factor that automated systems like Folding@Home lack. Furthermore, because gamers are accustomed to not only solving complex problems, but are also quite the experts in finding loopholes, exploits, and hacks when it comes to video games, those skills and experience are what allowed Foldit to solve this problem so quickly. Expect to see a completely new realm of jobs becoming available for gamers, this time in the scientific community and not the game industry.