The problem of determining the exact structure of a certain protein of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) has eluded scientists for 10 years. We know the chemical formula for such proteins, but not their shape. M-PMV, which is closely related to HIV, and produces AIDS in monkeys, produces its proteins in a big block, like most viruses. It then cuts them apart into usable components with a protein called a protease. Proteases are built like scissors, having two parts that are joined together. If we could figure out what the halves looked like before they joined together, we could come up with ways to prevent them from joining, and thus shut down the virus’ operations completely.
However, scientists have bee working on this problem for 10 years with no success. Complex computer programs and tons of computing resource couldn’t crack it. Until Firas Khatib, a researcher at the University of Washington (Go Dogs!) took the problem to the players of a protein folding game called Foldit.
The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.
Foldit is a game, full-stop. It’s a massively multiplayer game, but not a roleplaying one. Collaboration is possible, and there are message boards and wikis about it.
I feel that the best approach to “intelligent” tasks is that of human-machine partnership. Foldit is a computer program that doesn’t solve protein folding at all, but instead reduces it to a task a human being can easily comprehend and fiddle with. Many of the players of Foldit have no technical background at all. The operations on proteins have names like “tweak” and “shake”.
Furthermore, by having lots of teams work on the problem, when some of them go down a bad path, it doesn’t sink the whole project. They just get pwned by other teams, learn from it and move on.
Phritz sent this to me, but the quote is from Ed Yong’s blog at discover.com, which I highly recommend