The greatest scientific minds of our times have been working for a decade on breaking down the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like virus without success. Video gamers were able to do it in just three weeks.
Yahoo! News reports that the enzyme in question was a "monomeric protease enzyme, a cutting agent in the complex molecular tailoring of retroviruses, a family that includes HIV."
Researchers were hoping if they could figure out the enzyme, it could lead to the development of drugs to block them. They were stymied, however, in part because looking at it under a microscope only gives a flat view when a 3-D view is needed.
So along comes a "fun-for-purpose" video game called "Foldit." Developed at the University of Washington, it unfolds chains of amino acids, allowing users to build its structure.
The gamers got to work on this particular enzyme and quickly did what the genius researchers could not.
"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Firas Khatib of the university's biochemistry lab said in a news release. "The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems."
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," one of Foldit's creators, Seth Cooper, explained. "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week's paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."
The discovery could eventually lead to new drugs to treat HIV and AIDS.
The story is published in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
Here is a report from MSNBC: