Computer game unlocks protein puzzle

SEATTLE, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Computer gamers are helping U.S. scientists discover secrets about the structure of proteins -- and having fun while they do it, they say.

More than 57,000 people, many of them non-scientists, have been playing Foldit, an online game aimed at solving the mysteries of protein structure, a report in the journal Nature said Thursday.


Several top-ranked game players even outperformed state-of-the-art computer algorithms that tackle the same problem, the article said.

The game, developed by Seth Cooper of the University of Washington in Seattle, recruited the online community to help solve the mystery of how proteins fold amino acid chains that allow them to become the building blocks of life.

Players tweak, tug and twist partially folded proteins, with the aim of creating 3-D structures that are energetically comfortable for the protein to maintain.

Foldit has a good mix of the three main motivators in online gaming: competition (players score points and are ranked), camaraderie (teams can play, sharing strategies and dividing labor) and immersion (players can lose themselves in the game).

Foldit is such a success the University of Washington is starting a new center for game science, Cooper says.


"The word game has been kind of a bad word," Stanford University's Nick Yee, who studies the sociology of online games, says.

"(People say) computer games are just trivial; they're what teenagers do in their basement. This … shows you can actually use computer games to solve really hard problems."

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