After failing to figure out the crystal structure of an AIDS retrovirus enzyme responsible for how HIV multiplies, scientists crowd-sourced the effort to the gaming community, which was able to decipher the structure in a matter of days.
The gaming site Foldit, which creates games from scientific problems, was able to produce accurate models of the M-PMV retroviral protease after multiple failed attempts by scientists to do so, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
"Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination," the study said. "The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs."
By unraveling how the protein multiplies, the scientists could, in theory, develop new medicines to stop the virus from spreading.
Foldit is a video game developed in 2008 by the University of Washington's departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Biochemistry. The object of the collaborative game is to determine how the primary structure of a protein turns into a functioning three-dimensional structure, or how it "folds."
"Scientists are interested in working out the three-dimensional structure of proteins because they help understand how the proteins carry out their jobs, what they do inside cells," said David Baker, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Washington. "People put a huge amount of energy into playing games on computers, so I think projects like this can channel that energy into solving real world problems."
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.