Gamers unlock mystery that has baffled AIDS researchers

In just three weeks, gamers deciphered the structure of a key protein in the development of AIDS that has stumped scientists for years. According to a study published Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, the findings could present a significant breakthrough for AIDS and HIV research.

Using an online game called Foldit, players were able to predict the structure of a protein called retroviral protease, an enzyme that plays a critical role in the way HIV multiplies. Unlocking the build of the protein could theoretically aid scientists in developing drugs that would stop protease from spreading.

“Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein,” the study reads. “Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.”

Developed by Covernomics researchers based at the University of Washington, Foldit turns scientific problems into competitive games. Players were charged with using spatial and critical thinking skills to build 3D models of protease. Few of these players had any kind of background in biochemistry.

According to Fox, it took players a matter of days to come up with models that were solid enough for researchers to translate into scientific rendering of the protein.

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” Foldit’s lead designer Seth Cooper said in a statement. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”