Online games have been used to model scientific problems before, but this is the first time an online gaming community gets credit for a scientific journal article . A new study published in the journal Nature discusses the role players of the Foldit game are helping researchers find out more about protein structure.
Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids that are capable of many things; from catalyzing biological activity, to physically supporting tissues. One of the first pieces of the puzzle in understanding a particular protein is to know about its 3D shape, or conformation. That's what Foldit does. Users are presented with a partially folded protein as determined by an algorithm. They use a number of tools built into the interface to align the protein's folds of amino acids until they find the lowest energy state. This is the shape a protein must have in order to perform its function.
The study authors notes that different players have different play styles. Some were adept at making large scale changes to approximate the final shape. Others had a knack for fine tweaking of the structure to find the perfect conformation. When gamers combined their skills, they accomplished some real science. Researchers in other fields are considering employing gamers in similar ways after the success of Foldit. The next time someone tells you you're wasting time playing games, tell them about this.