One of the most intriguing new developments in the drug discovery field has been the recruitment of gamers into the puzzling business of protein folding. Now an initial foray into simple puzzle solving by the FoldIt project has grown into a challenge to design new variants of a protein. And thousands of gamers have responded with alacrity, amping up a protein's activity in ways that clearly impress the scientists involved.
As Ars Technica notes, a protein's activity is driven by its three-dimensional shape, and the players have been coming up with low-energy creations. In the most recent advance, a liaison player working with a group of gamers designed an enzyme that was 100 times more active than the original. Then they collaborated on stabilizing one of the parts. The research was published this week in Nature Biotechnology.
By combining expert supervision with the enterprising contributions from the crowd, the team wound up creating a potent enzyme in a much shorter period of time than the experts require working alone. And that helps illustrate a new model of crowd-sourcing protein research that could have a distinct commercial application. The game now has 240,000 registered players.
"I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn't do it," postdoc researcher Justin Siegel tells Scientific American. "FoldIt players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don't fully understand how they did it."