Online gamers bring scientists closer to curing AIDS

Scientists are one step closer to eradicating AIDS and other diseases thanks to a group of gamers who are reported to have solved a long-standing biological mystery. Recently, players of the online protein folding sim Foldit uncovered the structure of a specific enzyme thought to be integral in the spread of the virus. In non-egghead terms, this means researchers now have the enemy intel they need to take their fight against AIDS to the next level, and it's all thanks to us! Well... some of us at least.

"Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem," said Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington in a statement to Cosmic Log. "This is one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS."

Khatib said the decision to approach Foldit members with the so-called Mason-Pfizer monkey-virus puzzle was a “last -ditch effort”, but that he and fellow colleagues who had laid the groundwork for the discovery were amazed to discover that gamers had solved their challenge in less than 10 days.

The solution (detailed in full in the latest Nature Structural & Molecular Biology paper) is being credited to a team of roughly 15 Foldit 'Contenders' from all over the world. One member, going by the name 'mimi', said it was a group effort, recalling, "We were all very excited to hear that we had helped to find the answer to this crystal form, especially since it had been outstanding so long and other methods had been unsuccessful. The feeling of having done something that could make a significant contribution to research in this field is very special and unexpected. Foldit players have achieved a number of successes so far, and I hope we will go on to make many more.”

Foldit was introduced online in 2008 as a joint project by the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry departments. It currently has over 236,000 registered players.

Sep 19, 2011