Wednesday, 12 October 2011

When experts, laypersons and computers cooperate

How can video-game players contribute to combating AIDS? By decoding protein structures. And how can biochemists make video-gamers support their work? By using a video game. But why should biochemists be interested in video-gamers’ support? Because humans are better at spatial reasoning than computers. Surprised? Here is the full story.

Recently, video-game players decoded the structure of an AIDS protein that researchers had been working on for 15 years within only three weeks. This was possible because of a new online game called Fold.it.





Proteins play a key role for human existence. They are important for transporting nutrients and transmitting signals. There are numerous different proteins within our bodies, and all of them have a very specific structure, i.e. are folded in a very particular way. Decoding this structure is important because it helps scientists understand how the proteins function, for example how they cause disease. However, decoding a protein’s structure is difficult, and computers can only help to a limited extent because they are not good at spatial reasoning (yet), as experts say. Therefore, the idea behind Fold.it was to create a game that would give online gamers points for the structures they would model – the more appropriate the structure, the more points.

Thus, online gamers modeled protein structures that were of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The findings help design drugs against AIDS. An article on the study was published in the journal Nature. There is a description of the project in the Huffington Post.

This story is pretty amazing and at the same time encouraging because it is an example of successful work in diverse teams. People of different qualifications solved a problem that the experts alone were struggling with. The motivations were different: the experts wanted to find a molecular structure, the video-game players wanted to play and gain points. Some people realised how these different interests and motivations could be met for the benefit of all. Many people worked together. All of it was assisted by computers. And most likely most people would not have this combination to work.

Have you heard of or read about similar stories, when problems were solved by diverse teams? Please leave a comment here or on our facebook page, and we will be happy to write a blog post!

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