Gamers Save World from AIDS

Gamers Save World from AIDS September 20, 2011

That’s a slight exaggeration. Okay, it’s a huge exaggeration. Still, it contains a solid grain of truth. University of Washington video game enthusiasts have succeeded in mapping the structure of the monomeric protease enzyme, which Yahoo! News calls “a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV”:

Figuring out the structure of proteins is vital for understanding the causes of many diseases and developing drugs to block them.

But a microscope gives only a flat image of what to the outsider looks like a plate of one-dimensional scrunched-up spaghetti. Pharmacologists, though, need a 3-D picture that “unfolds” the molecule and rotates it in order to reveal potential targets for drugs.
This is where Foldit comes in.

Developed in 2008 by the University of Washington, it is a fun-for-purpose video game in which gamers, divided into competing groups, compete to unfold chains of amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — using a set of online tools.

To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks.

The gamers, together with a team of biological researchers, have published a review of the experiment in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. They predict having an accurate picture of the enzyme will provide “new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.”

I find this delightful — not because I really expect this discovery to lead to a cure for AIDS anytime soon, but because, once again, amateurism proved its worth to a skeptical world. These gamers — who, granted, belong to a species apart from and above that of the average GTA addict — evoke Orville and Wilbur Wright, who had no formal training in engineering. They also evoke the bloggers who exposed the Killiam Memos, and for that matter, Susan Boyle and Rocky Balboa. The world’s got talent.

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