September 19, 2011
Gamers Crack AIDS Enzyme That Had Stumped Scientists
Video game players have successfully pieced together the structure of a retrovirus enzyme that causes an AIDS-like ailment in rhesus monkeys--an enzyme whose configuration had stumped scientists from more than a decade, according to various reports.
The feat, which is the topic of a paper published online in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology on Sunday, was accomplished by players on a collaborative computer title called Foldit.
Launched by the University of Washington (UW) in 2008, Foldit was described in a press release as "an online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules."
AFP reports that their goal was to determine the structure of "a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV“¦ Figuring out the structure of proteins is vital for understanding the causes of many diseases and developing drugs to block them."
According to a statement posted on the game's official website, scientists had been working to crack this particular enzyme for 15 years. AFP reports that the gamers took just three weeks to produce an accurate model of the retrovirus enzyme using the software's online tools; Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the UW and lead author of the paper describing the project, told Alan Boyle of MSNBC.com that it took them just 10 days.
The Foldit homepage notes that the model has been verified through x-ray crystallography.
"We are so proud of everything that you Foldit players have accomplished already, and we hope that this article will show the world the power of citizen science," the game's staff wrote in a statement posted to its official website.
"This is the first instance we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem and we want to thank you all for your amazing work on this and everything else," they added.
According to the UW press release, surfaces on the molecule appear as though they could be potential targets for drugs that would deactivate the enzyme. In the study, the authors, including both scientists and gamers, wrote that features on the enzyme "provide exciting opportunities for the design of retroviral drugs," including those that would help combat AIDS.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Khatib added. "The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."
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