Playing to Win: Gamers Help Create a Scientific Breakthrough

For a few hours a day, over a period of ten days, a group of gamers has gotten together to play an online puzzle game called Foldit. Recently a group of 12 to 15 of them conquered the game. Happens all the time, right? Not like this.

In a paper published last month in Natural Structure and Molecular Biology crowdsourcing was used to predict the structure of a protein. From the paper:

Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.

In layman's terms, this "retroviral protease" helps the virus to spread. By cracking the code of how such a protein is put together, scientists can more easily design drugs that can attach to it, like a key to a lock, leading to breakthrough drugs that could stop the virus from spreading.  The significant part of this particular project is the fact that the protein in question was a very complicated "AIDS-like virus found in Rhesus monkeys." Yes, video game players found the solution to a protein puzzle which had eluded scientists. Stop and think about this. Collaborative play can help science fight diseases like AIDS.

Now most of the "gamers" at play on this University of Washington project are also scientists who used a protein-folding computer program called Rosetta to solve the puzzle, according to this article at MSNBC, but here's the fascinating part: According to the published paper, most of the players on the team which solved the puzzle "have little or no background in biochemistry." The MSNBC article quotes one of the key players as saying, "The team members come from a wide range of backgrounds, chiefly scientific or IT [Information Technology], although our best player is from neither."

The importance and value of collaborative play is being recognized outside of the toy box in which many want to try and confine it. Play is not something that's only for the young or the frivolous. Play can solve big problems. Big words that can be backed up. I've never been more excited about the power of play!

I've been asked to give the keynote speech at the 2nd Annual Symposium for USC Physical Sciences in Oncology Center next week. The team there has long recognized the value of collaborative play. The Physical Sciences in Oncology initiative has established scientific teams and individual scientists from the fields outside biology, including physics, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering to examine cancer using approaches that have not been followed in cancer research to date. They use novel conceptual approaches (i.e playful, creative thinking) to get results. Of course, I will be sharing this incredible gaming project in my talk, but I'm quite sure the team at USC has already devoured the findings with enthusiasm. After all, they're already thinking outside the toy box.


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