Online gamers crack 10-year AIDS enzyme puzzle in just 3 weeks

In an example of ‘crowd-sourcing’ at its best, online gamers have solved an AIDS enzyme puzzle that has stumped scientists for nearly a decade, providing a break-through for potentially life-saving drug developments.

A group of scientists, after failing to solve the crystal structure of a protein involved in AIDS, challenged players of the protein-folding game to try.
The players were able to create what the scientists described as “models of sufficient quality” for the scientists to complete the structure.
The scientists hail from the University of Washington, A. Mickiewicz University in Poland, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.
The crowd-sourcing effort is described in a research paper, “Crystal Structure of a Monomeric Retroviral Protease Solved By Protein Folding Game Players” published in the current issue of Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Both gamers and researchers have been credited as co-authors.
The enzyme in question was a monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV.
A microscope only provides a 2D image of what to the viewer looks like a plate of one-dimensional spaghetti. The problem with the microscope is that it doesn’t provide pharmacologists with a 3D picture that “unfolds” the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.
The application was developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids which make up proteins, using a set of online tools.
The gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks, far quicker than scientists expected.
According to the study, solving the enzyme problem, “provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs”. Antiretrovirals are the only effective medication against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said Firas Khatib from the University’s biochemistry lab. The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”
One of’s developers, Seth Cooper, explained why gamers had succeeded where computers had failed. “People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” he said. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”