Gamers tackle enzyme makeover, beat scientists' efforts

Online players of the video game Foldit have notched another first. With a bit of guidance, the players were able to redesign an enzyme and improve its potency, and it's the first time crowdsourcing has been used in this way, Scientific American reported. And the feat is further proof of how the wisdom of many amateurs can potentially trump that of several experts.

Foldit players, who previously gained acclaim for solving a structural problem for an HIV-related enzyme that had stumped scientists for years, have taken their game to a new level with their latest accomplishment. Their efforts resulted in an enzyme that is eighteenfold more effective than the original, Scientific American reported, and the next challenge the gamers plan to tackle is designing an improved protein inhibitor of the 1918 pandemic flu virus.

Scientists at the University of Washington, where Foldit was created, had tried to use computers to engineer an improved version of an enzyme used to catalyze a reaction in synthetic chemistry. But their redesigned enzyme lacked punch, so they later brought the problem to Foldit's player community, which now has about 240,000 registered users, according to Scientific American. And the collective efforts of Foldit players resulted in a better enzyme design than what the UW scientists produced.

"I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn't do it," Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher at UW, said, as quoted by 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."

UW isn't the only group that is seeking computing capacity and brainpower from crowds. At McGill University, for instance, researchers have developed an online game that lets players correct misaligned DNA sequences, and players have been put to use in studies of hundreds of disease genes.

- here's the Scientific American article
- check out the piece in Ars Technica