Scientists spent a decade trying—and failing—to map the structure of an enzyme that could help solve a crucial part of the AIDS puzzle. It took online gamers all of three weeks.
The enzyme in question is the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus retroviral protease, and researchers have been seeking ways of deactivating it as a way of developing new anti-HIV drugs. Unfortunately, the conventional efforts of computers and scientists have come up short for years.
Enter: Foldit. Foldit was developed in 2008 as a means of discovering the structures of various proteins and amino acids—something computers can’t do very well—by turning it into a game. By inputting the experimental coordinates for the monkey virus enzyme, gamers—most of whom didn’t have a background in molecular biology—were able to accurately predict the structure of the protein, allowing scientists to pinpoint locations to stop the virus’ growth.
The study, published in Nature Structure & Molecular Biology, details how incredible a step this is towards developing more effective therapies for HIV/AIDS patients. It’s also an important precedent that lays the groundwork for scientists and lay people to work together to solve new problems and save lives. Which is very exciting.