It’s not every day that people can get published in one of the world’s leading scientific journals by playing computer games, but Foldit is no ordinary game. The brainchild of Seth Cooper from the University of Washington, Foldit taps into the collective efforts of tens of thousands computer gamers to solve scientific problems.
The goal of the game is to work out the complicated three-dimensional structures of different proteins. Proteins are feats of biological origami; they consist of long chains of amino acids that fold into very specific and complicated shapes. These shapes can reveal how proteins work but solving them is fiendishly challenging. To do it, scientists typically need to grow crystals of purified protein before bouncing X-rays off them. Foldit takes a different approach, using the collective efforts of causal gamers to do the hard work. And its best players can outperform software designed to do the same job. (more…)