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Civilian Scientists the Foldit Program allows the Public to Solve Protein Structures

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September, 2011 will forever mark history for gamers participating in the controversial Foldit Program, and researchers in the biomedical community as well.  Foldit published a breakthrough paper in which civilian scientists, participating in a Foldit game, cracked a protein structure puzzle that has evaded molecular scientists for a decade.

Nature America, Inc. - a New York publisher of scientific journals, reviews, and online databases for academic, scientific, and medical communities - recently released the article, Crystal Structure of a Monomeric Retroviral Protease Solved by Protein Folding Game Players (, along with the names of the players involved.  Will those gamers be up for a Nobel Prize?  Maybe they should be, along with the creators of Foldit.

Foldit  is a revolutionary gaming program, developed in 2008 to harness the brain power of the public in scientific research.  Offered as a free beta download, introductory levels teach the gaming rules – which are the laws of physics that allow protein strands to fold into three dimensional shapes.  Gamers then play with simulated protein strands, figuring out how to fold them to achieve the desired results.

What are the desired results? Scientists know the genetic make-up of over 100,000 proteins which are found in every human cell, throughout the immune system, and necessary for every bodily chemical reaction.  They do not know how those proteins fold into a virtually limitless array of possible 3-D formations, thus presenting unique nooks and crannies.  That information could unlock amazing secrets; like how viruses work, grow, and mutate - and how they can be stopped.  Available Foldit games to date include puzzles on electron density, H2N2 flu, and retroviral protease molecules found in such viruses as HIV.

Dr. Steven Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine.  In a recent article submitted to the NeuroLogica Blog he writes, “The Foldit game is a way of harnessing the brain power of video game players to help find solutions.  Foldit capitalizes on people's natural 3-D problem-solving skills….  People, using their intuition, might be able to home in on the right answer."  He explains that the human brain is essentially a parallel processor and excellent at pattern recognition.  What many people can do intuitively, a computer is simply not yet capable of.

Foldit results are submitted to scientists, who build and test models of the proteins to see if the results stay true.  So far, they do.  Foldit is an amazing way to harness the collective creative brain power of an entire race of civilian scientists to understand, fight, and someday eradicate disease.

More about this author: Alice Shoaf

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