Computer scientists and biochemists at the University of Washington two years ago launched an ambitious project harnessing the brainpower of computer gamers to solve medical problems.
The game, Foldit, turns one of the hardest problems in molecular biology into a game a bit reminiscent of Tetris. Thousands of people have now played a game that asks them to fold a protein rather than stack colored blocks or rescue a princess.
Results published Thursday (Aug. 5) in the journal Nature show that Foldit is a success. It turns out that people can, indeed, compete with supercomputers in this arena. Analysis shows that players bested the computers on problems that required radical moves, risks and long-term vision the kinds of qualities that computers do not possess.
"People in the scientific community have known about Foldit for a while, and everybody thought it was a great idea, but the really fundamental question in most scientists' minds was 'What can it produce in terms of results? Is there any evidence that it's doing something useful?'" said principal investigator Zoran Popović, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering.
"I hope this paper will convince a lot of those people who were sitting on the sidelines, and the whole genre of scientific discovery games will really take off," he said.
Scientists know the pieces that make up a protein but cannot predict how those parts fit together into a 3-D structure. And since proteins act like locks and keys, the structure is crucial.
At any moment, thousands of computers are working away at calculating how physical forces would cause a protein to fold. But no computer in the world is big enough, and computers may not take the smartest approach. So the UW team tried to make it into a game that people could play and compete. Foldit turns protein-folding into a game and awards points based on the internal energy of the 3-D protein structure, dictated by the
|Contact: Hannah Hickey|
University of Washington