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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Video Gamers Solve HIV Protein Puzzle

Video games and video gamers often get a bad rap in the media, usually unfairly in my opinion. Although my own video game playing has waned over the years, I grew up with Intellivision, Atari, Coleco, the original Nintendo, and REAL arcades in the 1980s that only cost a quarter to play. Hearing the noises of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, Super Mario Brothers, and countless others, was and still is, music to my ears. So I have a fond affection for video games (and all sorts of games) having grown in the Golden Age era.

These days, video games have advanced significantly to include huge online communities, live simultaneous international competition, rewards and prestige for earning achievements, and often require excellent visual-spatial skills and highly complex strategic decision making. The people who play these games and do well and them are highly skilled and many are very intelligent. My brother, an engineer who graduated from Lehigh and Georgia Tech, is a perfect example.

Researchers at the University of Washington figured they may be able to use the skills of video gamers to help them solve a problem they had been unable to figure out for over a decade. Specifically, the researchers were trying to determine the structure of a protein (known as protease) that forms retroviruses. This protein plays in important role in causing certain viruses to multiply, including HIV. The structure was difficult for the researchers and computers to decipher because the amino acids that make up the protein fold into very complex shapes.

In order to create a drug to deactivates the protein (which would then stop the virus from multiplying), the researchers needed to know its exact structure. Why?  Think of a lock and key analogy. Just like a lock will only open for a specific key based on the structure of both components, parts of the protein have structures that will only react to a medication made of molecules with a corresponding matching shape.

So the researchers at University of Washington made a video game named “Foldit” to see if they could get people to build models of the protein. The game was competitive and required the use of three-dimensional problem solving skills.
Result…In just three weeks, video gamers deciphered the structure of the protein. The discovery is expected to result in the development of new anti-retroviral drugs, which includes anti-HIV drugs.

Conclusions:

  1. Human intuition can be superior to automated computer methods.
  2. Some video gamers are geniuses.
  3. Video game players provided a positive contribution to science.
  4. Video gamers may have just opened the door to giving many sick people an “extra guy.”

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