In a recent article posted here on GIO, there was mention of a site called FoldIt. The article talked about how gamers had contributed to a breakthrough in a certain enzyme that was similar to HIV that scientists had been puzzling over for the last decade. The gamers figured it out in three weeks.

Needless to say, I was very intrigued. What is FoldIt? What would happen if more gamers used FoldIt? How could gaming possibly do to help scientists? Why can’t computers do this faster?

Basically, FoldIt is a site designed to help scientists find new ways of folding protein strands, which are the building blocks of life and facilitate almost all of your body’s processes, like converting food into energy or sending signals through your brain. The shape of a protein radically changes its function, so folding and bending it will change what it can do. Protein strands can be very small with 100 amino acids, or very large with over 1000. This means that there are so many different ways that a protein can be folded that it is incredibly difficult for scientists to figure out which is the best way to fold the protein. FoldIt manages to turn this process into a game.

Computers, it turns out, are really very good at figuring out the best way to fold proteins and they are even less adept at making new proteins. What FoldIt does is it gives the folding of proteins over to players who receive points based off of how well they can fold various proteins.

This is what happens to computers when they play with protein strands.

What does this have to do with diseases or finding cures? Well, as you can imagine, with all of the various things that proteins do in our bodies, when something goes wrong with them, it can really screw us up. Cancer and Alzheimer’s are both caused by malfunctioning proteins in our bodies and HIV is an invasive disease made up mostly of proteins. People who play on FoldIt are helping scientists learn more about how proteins fold and the more scientists know about how best to fold proteins, the better chance they have at finding a cure for various protein based diseases. Not only could FoldIt lead to cures for diseases, but it could also lead to faster and more efficient biofuel production and usage. In addition to understanding existing proteins better, players can also design new proteins. If you want to try to design a protein that can take on cancer or HIV or… the list goes on.The more people that use FoldIt and play to make better proteins, the more likely we are to hit on a cure for a disease or make a breakthrough in biofuels or treatment of diseases.

As you can see in the lower left corner, FoldIt gives you different tools or powers to help you as you earn more points.

Here is a statement of the long term goals of FoldIt:

“For protein structure prediction, the eventual goal is to have human folders work on proteins that do not have a known structure. This would require first attracting the attention of scientists and biotech companies and convincing them that the process is effective. Another goal is to take folding strategies that human players have come up with while playing the game, and automate these strategies to make protein-prediction software more effective. These two goals are more or less independent and either or both may happen.

The more interesting goal for Foldit, perhaps, is not in protein prediction but protein design. Designing new proteins may be more directly practical than protein prediction, as the problem you must solve as a protein designer is basically an engineering problem (protein engineering), whether you are trying to disable a virus or scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It's also a relatively new field compared to protein prediction. There aren't a lot of automated approaches to protein design, so Foldit's human folders will have less competition from the machines.”

Different protein strands being folded

FoldIt was designed by the University of Washington’s departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry. It was launched in 2008 in its Beta stage in which it remains today. If puzzle games are your cup of tea, then it might very well be worth checking out FoldIt. I think that this is a very interesting way of making use of gaming for the betterment of mankind, and I am excited to see if there will be more services like this popping up in the future.