On-line gamers have solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme whose configuration had stymied scientists, according to a press release from National Science Foundation (NSF).
The players were adept at a computer game, Foldit, that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules.
After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they called in the Foldit players.
The scientists challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme. This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates.
Intensive research is underway to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looked like.
“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said biochemist Firas Khatib of the University of Washington.
Remarkably, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine and determine the enzyme’s structure within a few days.
Equally amazing, surfaces on the molecule stood out as likely targets for drugs to de-active the enzyme.
“These features provide exciting opportunities for the design of retroviral drugs, including AIDS drugs,” write Khatib and co-authors of a paper appearing yesterday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
The scientists and gamers are all listed as co-authors.
“Online gamers have solved a longstanding scientific problem, perhaps leading the way to new anti-viral drugs,” said Carter Kimsey, program director in the NSF’s Division of Biological Infrastructure, which funded the research.
“After this discovery, young people might not mind doing their online science homework,” said Kimsey. “This is an innovative approach to getting humans and computer models to ‘learn from each other’ in real-time.”
Fold-it was created by computer scientists and biochemists at the UW Center for Game Science, and by paper co-author biochemist David Baker of UW, to engage the general public in scientific discovery.
The solution of the virus enzyme structure, the scientists said, indicates the power of online computer games to channel human intuition and of three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems.