In 2011, gamers solved the riddle of a protein-cutting enzyme that had stymied researchers for over a decade.[i] It took the players of an online game called Foldit just three weeks to identify this formerly elusive structure, the discovery of which may lead to improved treatments for HIV.[ii] A paper describing the discovery was published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
Created by computer scientists at the University of Washington and released in 2009, Foldit allows players to cooperate and compete in predicting the 3D structure of protein molecules. This type of gaming is part of what is known as the citizen science movement, or crowdsourcing for science. Specifically, these types of games, sometimes referred to as Games with a Purpose (GWAPs), leverage networks of people to solve large-scale problems that computers just cannot process as intuitively or insightfully. This is one area in which humans possess the spatial reasoning and pattern recognition skills that computers currently lack.
The popularity and success of games such as Foldit illustrate the immense potential for online video games to contribute to real-world science. Here are several other games, along with a description of Foldit, that are providing a cost-effective and innovative way for citizens to contribute to scientific research:
Foldit enables players to solve puzzles that help to predict the structure of protein molecules. Knowing the structure of a protein is crucial to understanding how it works, which in turn can contribute to research on cancer, Alzheimer’s, immune deficiencies, and even biofuels.
Developed at Seung Lab at MIT, players map the 3D structure of neurons in the brain. The game has the potential to advance neuroscience research on how the retina functions in visual perception, and generally to help researchers to discover how neurons connect and network to process information.
Phylo is an online puzzle game similar to Tetris, designed by a team from McGill University. The puzzles are built from the DNA of humans and 44 other species. Players help to compare genomic data and identify similarities between genomes. Results are stored, analyzed, and publicly released to the scientific community to foster genetic research.
EteRNA was developed in 2010 by scientists at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities. The game challenges players to design new ways to fold ribonucleic acid (RNAs) molecules and then vote on each others’ designs. The best designs are tested in a Stanford lab. Breakthroughs in RNA designs could lead to new ways of controlling living cells and curing disease.
[i] Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. (2011). Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Retrieved November 29, 2013 from, http://www.nature.com/nsmb/journal/v18/n10/full/nsmb.2119.html
[ii] Science Daily. (2011). Gamers Succeed Where Scientists Fail: Molecular Structure of Retrovirus Enzyme Solved, Doors Open to New AIDS Drug Design. Retrieved November 28, 2013 from, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110918144955.htm