Gamers Outperform Algorithms At Competitive Protein Folding

Computer gamers outperform algorithms in figuring out how proteins select their final, three-dimensional shape given their unique DNA. Knowing the structure of a protein is essential in understanding how it functions and (more to the point from the researcher's standpoint) figuring out how to target it with drugs.

A small protein can consist of 100 amino acids, while some human proteins can be huge (1000 amino acids). The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical because there are so many degrees of freedom. Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
(From The Science Behind Foldit)


(Foldit Game screen)

Foldit uses some of the same conventions typical of other computer games, like a few simple structural problems to give new users a smooth learning curve. It also borrows from other online gaming communities; there are leaderboards, team and individual challenges, user forums, and so on.

Though very few of those who played Foldit had any significant background in biochemistry, the gamers tended to beat Rosetta when it came to solving structures. In a series of ten challenges, they outperformed the algorithms on five and drew even on another three.

By tracing the actions of the best players, the authors were able to figure out how the humans' excellent pattern recognition abilities gave them an edge over the computer. For example, people were very good about detecting a hydrophobic amino acid when it stuck out from the protein's surface, instead of being buried internally, and they were willing to rearrange the structure's internals in order to tuck the offending amino acid back inside.
(From ars technica)


(Foldit video shows what competitive protein folding is all about)

SF movie fans recall Ender's Game, the 1985 novel that uses games as a medium in which children can solve real world problems. Continuing in the same vein, see a similar approach in World of Warcraft School of Business and this article on a MMOG For Military Training .

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