The meeting of University of Washington computer scientist Zoran Popovic and biochemist David Baker reads a bit like a sci-fi adventure: Computer scientist meets biochemist; computer scientist and biochemist collaborate on a video game that enables tens of thousands of people to contribute to scientific research by folding three-dimensional protein configurations on their home computers; computer scientist and biochemist cure cancer.
That last part is still fiction, of course, but since its launch in 2008, Foldit—a free, downloadable Tetris-like video game—has been used by some 200,000 users to help advance how scientists understand and predict the structure of proteins that cause and advance diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s. The game was partly inspired by a biomedical research program developed by Baker. Called Rosetta@home, it allows users to watch virtual representations of problems being solved on their computer screensavers. “People started to notice that the computer might be doing the wrong thing, going left instead of going right,” explains Baker. Foldit enables users to force the protein to go in the “right” direction, speeding up the problem-solving process.
Foldit gained national attention in August when a Nature article credited as authors the 57,000 gamers who had “contributed extensively through their feedback and gameplay.” The article showed results of a study in which Foldit players were able to solve the game’s protein puzzles more efficiently than computers. “We’re involving people in science in a way that produces results that you can’t get any other way,” says Popovic. “It’s democratizing science.”
Published November 2010
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