Crowd-Sourcing Hard Problems, as Games

By Shlomo Maital

   One of the hardest problems in molecular biology is discovering the exact 3-dimensional structure of complex protein molecules.

     Scientists at University of Washington, Center for Game Science, in collaboration with the Department of Biochemistry, found a unique way to tackle the problem. They crowd-sourced it, by creating a kind of social game in which players collaborate to find protein’s 3D structure – how the protein molecule ‘folds’. The game is called FoldIt. A recent BBC program decribed it.

    Foldit attempts to apply the human brain’s three-dimensional pattern matching and    spatial reasoning abilities to help solve the problem of protein structure prediction. Current puzzles are based on well-understood proteins. By analyzing how humans intuitively approach these puzzles, researchers hope to improve the algorithms used by protein-folding software. Foldit includes a series of tutorials where users manipulate simple protein-like structures and a periodically updated set of puzzles based on real proteins. It shows a graphical representation of each protein which users can manipulate using a set of tools.

      But did anything useful emerge? Indeed it did.

* A 2010 paper in science journal Nature credited Foldit’s 57,000 players with providing useful results that matched or outperformed algorithmically computed solutions.

* In 2011, Foldit players helped decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, a monkey virus which causes human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), a scientific problem that had been unsolved for 15 years. While the puzzle was available for three weeks, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme in only ten days.

* In January 2012, Scientific American reported that Foldit gamers achieved the first crowdsourced redesign of a protein, an enzyme.

    We know young people are bored in school. What if we could teach them math and science through a gaming approach? Challenge them with hard problems, let them work in teams (get those smartphones out of locked cupboards and put them to work) and ignite their creative energy.

   Surely, somewhere, progressive schools are doing this?