Foldit is at the head of the class of online science video games, having rapidly evolved from a fun crowdsourcing experiment to a bona fide source of scientific achievement within a few short years of its 2008 launch. Though far more technically challenging than some of the casual games of its kind, Foldit has attracted more than 240,000 registered users, Scientific American reported last year.
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Supported by the University of Washington (UW), the online puzzle game deals with protein folding and gives nonscientists the tools to work out the structure of enzymes and other molecules. In a true show of force, the game's online community puzzled out the structure of a retroviral enzyme that had stumped experts for more than a decade. The work has actual implications for HIV drug research and gave Foldit unmatched credibility in the scientific world.
And the community churns out solutions with astonishing speed. In three weeks, Foldit players designed a more potent version of an enzyme used to spark reactions in synthetic chemistry after scientists had struggled with the problem for years. And their feats have attracted the attention of Microsoft ($MSFT), DARPA and many others. DARPA, which funds research on behalf of the Department of Defense, has commissioned the Foldit community to craft proteins that could be used in treatments for sepsis.
With its huge community ready to tackle big problems, co-creator Seth Cooper of UW and other collaborators have been brainstorming future applications. Cooper has even talked about a similar use involving small-molecule structures as opposed to the large-molecule proteins in Foldit challenges.
Unlike easier games, Foldit requires a time commitment from players to learn the rules before they can jump in and help advance science. And while you don't have to be a biochemist to succeed in the game, it doesn't hurt to have a background in programming.
Some of the creators of Foldit from Carnegie Mellon University have launched a similar game involving RNA puzzles called EteRNA.
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