Gamers Build AIDS Molecule That Eluded Scientists For 10 Years

In what is believed to be the first instance of electronic gamers reaching a scientific discovery before trained research scientists, University of Washington (UW) gamers did indeed produce a model of an enzyme in AIDS and other viruses that scientists have been trying to model for more than 10 years. This was not just an academic exercise to test the new UW Fold-it game; discovery of the AIDS molecule in question opens the door to a whole new line of retroviral drugs.


Screen shot of the Foldit game's virus enzyme pose: University of Washington via msnbc.comScreen shot of the Foldit game's virus enzyme pose: University of Washington via


Because gaming encourages the use of intuition, said Dr. Firas Khatib, protein structure researcher at UW's department of biochemistry "We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed."

So the department called upon Foldit gamers, users of the game that UW's Center for Game Science actually created in 2007 to allow non-scientists to contribute their 3-D spatial abilities and intuition to solving a variety of yet-unsolved scientific stumbling blocks. The Foldit gamers, starting with no more than a flat image of the molecule, created a model within a few weeks that the UW biochemistry lab was able to tweak into a usable model for targeting drugs. 

The 3-D structure of the AIDS retroviral protease enzyme is so critical to the development of anti-AIDS drugs because the enzyme is critical to the proliferation of the virus.  For retroviral drugs to be successful, scientists need to know the most effective location on the virus to attack, and to know that, they must have a reliable 3D image of the virus.

The study is published in the September 18, 2011 online edition of Nature: Structural & Molecular Biology.  The scientists and gamers who contributed to the discovery are all listed as authors.  

UW professors are anxious to develop Foldit as a teaching method for science classes in school systems.  Not only will the game make science more fun for students, but it is sure to sharpen many skills that can be applied to other realms of knowledge too. (You see, gaming is not a totally useless activity after all!)


sources:  EurekAlert, Technology Switched OnNature: Structural & Molecular Biology