|Gamers solve scientific mystery||| Print ||
|Written by Andrea Hall|
|Friday, 23 September 2011 14:31|
Online gamers have resolved a biological puzzle that had scientists scratching their heads for over a decade. And they did it in three weeks.
The solution came through Foldit, an online game that challenges players to determine the correct structure of proteins. Players can interact with 3D models and manipulate the protein using a variety of tools.
“The game is designed to be played by non-biochemists,” Foldit co-creator Seth Cooper told thedailyplanet.com. “It sort of shows how people with their inherent spatial reasoning ability can solve these problems.”
Cooper is the Creative Director for the Center for Game Science at University of Washington in Seattle. He and his colleagues created Foldit four years ago.
With the recent breakthrough, players determined the structure of a retroviral protease.
“It’s a protein that’s involved in the proliferation of the AIDS virus,” said Cooper.
Understanding the shape of the protein may allow scientists to design antiretroviral drugs to combat HIV, said Cooper.
Jerome Waldispühl, an assistant professor in Computer Science at McGill, told thedailyplanet.com that Foldit is a useful tool for educating the public about protein folding, and can help compensate for problems with current algorithms in determining protein structure.
Waldispühl co-designed a similar game, Phylo, which has gamers match up genomes to determine the best alignment.
Genomes on their own give no information – they need to be compared to find common regions, which can help scientists understand genetic diseases, said Waldispühl. Computer algorithms often can’t determine the best alignment so Phylo has its players compete against a computer to find better solutions.
Rob Robson, information technology program co-ordinator at Humber, told thedailyplanet.com that there are millions of hours of unused brainpower that scientists can harness through games.
The technique of reaching out to the public to solve problems traditionally handled by professionals is known as crowdsourcing.
“Often a problem will stump the experts,” said Robson, adding fresh eyes might find new solutions, “simply because they know so much less about it, they don’t have any preconceptions.”
“They’re using the best of computers and the best of humans,” Umer Noor, professor of information technology at Humber College told thedailyplanet.com of crowdsourcing games. “It just makes me think of all the parents saying, ‘you’re wasting your time playing video games.’”
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