Don't be too quick to dismiss video games as a waste of time. Players of the online science game Foldit have pieced together the structure of an enzyme that could provide new targets for AIDS treatments, doing in three weeks what scientists failed to accomplish in more than 10 years.
The retroviral protease is a scissor-like enzyme that helps keep the AIDS virus going. Blocking the enzyme's activity is a goal of drug researchers, but they first need to know the structure of the enzyme. Firas Khatib, a researcher at the University of Washington, where Foldit originated, gave players of the online game the challenge of cracking the structure of the protease that scientists had puzzled over for more than a decade. The players came up with multiple structures of the enzyme in an astonishing three weeks, giving Khatib and his colleagues enough information to revise the gamers' work.
Researchers are saying that this is the first time that video gamers have cracked a longtime scientific mystery. The effort even exposed molecules on the surface of the enzyme that could be blocked with drugs to disable the function of it. A big part of the power of Foldit and games of its ilk is the ability to tap the brains of many gamers with diverse backgrounds and levels of scientific knowledge--ranging from complete novices to protein structure experts. It's also a way to get students immersed in science, something not easily accomplished nowadays.
"The ingenuity of game players," Khatib said in a release, "is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems." He and his colleagues published their findings in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.